Managing the Never-Ending Sporting Season

As we move into another winter winter, we reach the period of the year for many GAA players where one season blends into the next. Whether your club is lucky enough to have navigated its way through the County championship into the Provincial and All-Ireland series, or you are a student playing for your school or college, you probably haven’t been afforded much of a break this year. Des Ryan, Head of Athletic Development at the Arsenal Academy, speaking at Setanta College’s ‘Developing and Maximizing Youth Potential’ Conference in Thurles, warned that the physical demands on young GAA players are not sustainable. He wasn’t joking.

I was speaking recently to one of this year’s Limerick minor hurlers who said he could do with a break. He wasn’t joking either. Let’s take a quick look at his year so far:

He started training with Limerick in January, playing through to the All-Ireland quarter final in July. Somewhere in-between he managed to win a County u21 title in April. When the minor’s season ended, he joined up with the county U21 team who went on to win the All-Ireland final in September. He played with his club in the county minor championship as far as the final in October. The club senior championship started in April and culminated in final success in October, which sent them into the Provincial championship; they won that in November. Of course, back to school in September and straight into the Harty Cup, they topped the group this week and go into the quarter final in January. A brand new year. The club’s senior team continue to prepare for the All-Ireland Semi Final in February… And on and on it goes. The never ending season. In fact it’s more like 6 seasons, running concurrently.

If you are hopping from one competition period to the next without a break, proceed with caution. You might feel like you’re getting away with it now but evidence tells us that it always catches up.

This is the reality for 17 and 18 year olds all over the country, especially star players who are under pressure to play every match. Because of course, every game is important, unfortunately more so than the young athlete’s wellbeing. We know that there is a relationship between training loads and the incidence of injury or illness, and that injuries are often preceded by spikes in training load. Most of the cited research is specific to other sports, particularly Rugby League and Rugby Union, but it’s no stretch to say that the same principles apply to GAA and other sports. Aside from training loads, the busy schedule is depriving the young athlete of the opportunity to build a foundation of strength and joint mobility; the physical capacities that help bulletproof the body against overuse injuries.

Ultimately the solution, as Liam Hennessy eloquently articulated, is managing the demands and workloads placed on the player with co-operation between the managers of different teams. This was definitely a challenge for us with the Limerick minor hurlers; between players who didn’t embrace the importance of down time, and managers who put pressure on boys to tog out. Parents and guardians certainly have a role to play here in communicating with the various set-ups and seeking alignment and compromise as Liam puts it.

“There needs to be alignment, cooperation and compromise on the part of the stakeholders and without that a lot of young players are never going to reach their potential and could even be lost to sport altogether” Liam Hennessy

In saying that, we are always going to have these cases where someone is playing with many teams at the same time. And even if each of those have strength and conditioning coaches who control workloads with beautifully designed periodized training plans and in-built de-load periods, they are unlikely to account for the training loads of other teams and the cumulative effect over the course of a year.

With that in mind, the onus falls on the player himself to manage his work loads and minimize the residual fatigue that begins the downward spiral of reduced performance and injuries. There are different ways to monitor the body for neuromuscular fatigue, none of which are perfect, and some of which are more accessible than others depending on availability of equipment. Reactive Strength Index (RSI) from a drop jump is a popular measure in professional sports currently, and potentially a more reliable measure than Counter Movement Jump height alone.

But there are other simple strategies that can be employed on your own to give some indication of how your body is responding to workloads over time.

These are my 4 recommendations for athletes who care about managing their training loads and holding on to that powerful weapon, freshness.  Rather than waiting until you feel run down before looking to do something about it, prevent chronic fatigue from taking over and try one or two now. Stick with it every week in order to get some normative data to compare against, and you have a valuable tool.

Session RPE

We know that exceeding our bodies load absorbing capacity can lead to chronic fatigue and injury. So it would make sense to know what our training loads actually are. There are different methods to monitor training loads, with most reputable high-level sports teams including the Borg scale as a practical and simple tool to monitor and control internal training loads. This gives a value of the relative physiological stress imposed on an athlete by a training session or competitive performance, simply by taking the player’s Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) during the activity (on a scale of 1 to 10), and multiplying it by the duration of the session in minutes. For example, if a training session lasts for 60 minutes at an RPE of 6/10, the training load of that session equates to 360 arbitrary units.

Training Loads Commyns Pic

Examples of two training weeks. Week A is a well planned training week good variation in training load; minimizing training monotony. Week B is a poorly organized week with less variation and a greater monotony. Adopted from Comyns and Flanagan, 2013

When we collect training load data across the week, we can then calculate the training monotony, which tells us about the overall variability from the week. One of the most important factors in controlling training load is variability from session to session. A low monotony score indicates good fluctuation from day-to-day, while a high monotony score would indicate little variation in training loads from day-to-day.

Setting up a simple Excel file will allow you to monitor training loads effectively. Here’s a blog by Sport Scientist Marco Cardinale on how to set up your spreadsheet.

Wellness Questionnaires

Research supports the use of self-report questionnaires as a subjective measure to monitor changes in athlete wellness in response to training. They are a relatively quick and simple means to determine how an athlete is responding to the training stimulus and to lifestyle factors. There are different forms to choose one, some that are more time-intensive than others. The short form of the well known POMS test (Profile of Mood States) has 37 items on it, and the RESTQ-Sport (Recovery-Stress Questionnaire) has 76 items. While these questionnaires have been validated as means to assess perceived stress and recovery in athletes, the effort required to complete the form might affect compliance in the long run.

wellness questionnaire pic

Weekly wellness questionnaire that helped provide a picture of each players physical and psychological state.

We used a shorter questionnaire with the Limerick minor hurling team this year, with players rating 5 items on a scale of 1 to 5.  It was based on this study by Gastin, Myer, and Robinson (2013) who collected data from a team of elite Aussie Rules players throughout a full season, indicating that physical and psychological wellness was sensitive to weekly training manipulations. Due to the subjective nature of these questionnaires, the data can be over- or underestimated. However, they can be very useful in indicating a player’s perceived wellbeing and response to training in ways that tracking training load data alone can not. It’s really easy to set up a questionnaire online through Survey Monkey or Wufoo and get into the habit of filling it out once or twice a week.

Heart Rate Variability

Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is increasingly becoming a viable option for athletes to individually monitor their bodies response to training. Studies have shown it to be effective in monitoring training loads and preventing overtraining. HRV is the variation in intervals between heartbeats. If your heart beats at a steady rhythm, with the inervals between each pulse the same (like a metronome), your HRV is low, and this is not good. If your heart beats with intervals of varying length this is good. Your body’s sympathetic nervous system kicks in when we are training or competing (fight or flight), and the parasympathetic nervous system should kick in when we are resting and recovering (rest and digest). Measuring the rhythmic cadence of the heart is a good indicator of the sympathetic/parasympathetic balance of the body. This article is worth a read for a bit more information of what heart rate variability is about.

ithlete-app04

The ithlete app

Smartphone technology now allows us to easily monitor our daily HRV. Here’s how it works; You need to buy a HRV sensor, which you plug into your phone, as well as the corresponding app for your phone or tablet. The most common brand is Ithlete, while Bioforce is popular in the United States.  You also need a heart rate monitor, either a finger sensor or chest strap. Then first thing in the morning you sit up and follow the instructions on the app, and after a minute you get a reading of your HRV. The app will then tell you whether you are in the green, amber or red zone for intense physical activity.

In order to make the most of HRV values, longitudinal monitoring across the whole season is necessary, as well as an understanding of the individual responses in HRV to training and competition. Every player will have a unique individual HRV fingerprint. This means that you need to get your HRV score every day for a while to get normative data before the app can guide you on your freshness to train.

The benefit of HRV monitoring in comparison to wellness questionnaires is the objectivity of the data. You might try convincing yourself that you are feeling fine, but a low HRV score might tell a different story.

Standing Broad Jump

While the drop jump and counter movement jump are both widely used to monitor neuromuscular fatigue, there is little research supporting the use of a standing broad jump/ long jump as a monitoring tool. However, not many individual athletes will have their own jump mat, in which case a broad jump may prove to be a simple and useful monitoring tool.

The Argentina Rugby team, who are not afforded the same resources as the other big teams, used the standing broad jump in preparation for this years World Cup. According to their Strength and Conditioning coach, if a player recorded a jump that was less than 95% of their max distance the training session would be altered accordingly, and if a player recorded less than 90% of their max they would not carry out the planned training session for that player..

The greater skill demands of a standing broad jump in comparison to a counter movement jump can certainly affect the reliability of the test, as many factors relating to the technique of the jump influence the sensitivity of results. Thus, it is important to familiarize yourself with the movement and perfect the skill of the jump before using it as a monitoring tool.

Make sure that you standardize the test so that each jump looks the same. Use your arms to propel yourself forward, only count the jump if you stick the landing without bouncing forward, and measure the distance from the heel of the back foot (if one is slightly behind the other).
sbj jump trg str and flex

For further reading on the subject of monitoring training loads, here is an excellent review from 2014 , discussing the utility of different methods of external and internal load monitoring tools. The author, Shona Halson, emphasizes the importance of appropriate monitoring of individuals within a team environment, given that athletes may respond differently to the same training stimulus. At elite level sport, freshness is everything. By the time the big games come around the best players won’t be the ones who slogged through the extra hours of heavy work, it’ll be the ones who are bouncing off the grass with vigor and a heightened central nervous system. Don’t leave that advantage behind by training yourself into the ground, and know when you are going in that direction.

References

Comyns, T, & Flanagan, E. (2013) Applications of the session rating of perceived exertion system in professional rugby union. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 35 (6): 78-84

Coutts, A.J. & Reaburn P. (2008) Monitoring changes in Rugby League Player’s perceived stress and recovery during intensified training. Perceptual and Motor Skills. 106(3): 904-916

Gabbett, T.J. & Domrow, N. (2007) Relationships between training load, injury, and fitness in sub-elite collision sport athletes. Journal of Sports Sciences. 25(13): 1507-19

Gastin, P.B., Meyer, D. & Robinson, D. (2013) Perceptions of wellness to monitor adaptive respnses to training and competition in elite Australian football. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 27(9): 2518-26

Halson, S. (2014) Monitoring training load to understand fatigue in athletes.  Sports Medicine. 44(2): 139-147

Hamilton, D. (2009) Drop jumps as an indicator of neuromuscular fatigue and recovery in elite youth soccer athletes following tournament match play. Journal of Australian Strength and Conditioning. 17:(4)

Impellizzeri, F.M., Rampinini, E., Coutt, A.J., Sassi, A. & Marcora, S.E. (2004) Use of RPE-based Training Load in Soccer. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 1042-1047

Makivic, B., Nikic, M.D. & Willis, M.S., (2013) Heart rate variability (HRV) as a tool for diagnostic and monitoring performance in sport and physical activities. Journal of Exercise Physiology. 16(3): 103-131

Saw, A.E., Main, L.C., & Gastin, P.B, (2015) Monitoring the athlete training response: subjective self-reported measures trump commonly used objective measures: a systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 0:1-13

Author: Cairbre

Cairbre is the face behind Feed Me Strength. Currently the Strength and Conditioning coach for Arsenal Ladies FC. He has a passion for athletic performance and an endless curiosity about the inner workings of the body and mind.

UKSCA accredited, with a Sport and Exercise Sciences BSc, and Sports Performance MSc from the University of Limerick.

Cairbre dreams of Antrim winning the All-Ireland Hurling Championship most nights, and believes a good dose of movement, meditation, and Irish traditional music will cure almost anything.

2 Comments

  1. Nice article!
    You provided some great tips for monitoring athletes but, in my opinion, it can be simplified even further by merely keeping track of Resting HR values and number of hours sleep per night.Get the basics right first and then look more in depth

    Reply
    • Thanks Ray! Yes no doubt that the consistently applied monitoring system is better than half-hearted attempts to track too many variables. At the minute, the data that is helping me most in managing training stress are RPE metrics (daily, weekly, weekly % change, chronic:acute), and wellness questionnaire data.

      Reply

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