This article was provided by Training and Conditioning

The fall preseason is usually synonymous with long, hard practices and few, if any, rest days. But at the University of Portland, incorporating recovery into the preseason has resulted in fewer injuries and fresher athletes at the start of the season.

By Dr. Terry FaveroTerry Favero, PhD, is a Professor of Biology and Conditioning Coordinator for the men’s and women’s soccer teams at the University of Portland. He has also worked with the Olympic Development Program in Oregon and the U.S. men’s soccer team in preparation for the 2000 Olympics. He can be reached at: favero@up.edu.

Coaches and athletes are deeply invested in the traditions tied to sports. Fall preseason two-a-days or “daily doubles” are no exception. But soon after I started working with the men’s and women’s soccer teams here at the University of Portland, I started to wonder if the tradition of a brutal preseason is best left in the past.

Over the last 20 years, the sports medicine community has learned a lot about the ways athletes’ bodies recover. For example, we know that it takes a full 24 hours for glycogen stores to be replenished after a tough workout, so when athletes’ resources are being depleted by hard workouts twice a day for multiple days in a row, full recovery is impossible. It’s also been established that athletes who are fatigued are more prone to injury.

Five years ago, I began implementing some changes to our teams’ preseason workout programs that would give the athletes more recovery time. With fewer preseason injuries and fresher players on the pitch in the very first year, the combined soccer coaching staff (which oversees both the men’s and women’s programs together) bought into the tweaks I suggested and has fully supported further measures to promote recovery. Here’s a look at what we changed and why.

CHALLENGING TRADITION
From a scientific and teaching standpoint, very little of traditional preseason training methods made sense to me. Coaches tend to work their athletes beyond capacity, permit little time for regeneration and adaptation, and ask them to complete training activities that they rarely perform during the season. The preseason often seems to be disconnected from the competitive season rather than preparation for it.

Philosophically, I believe the preseason should be designed to lead into, prepare for, and reflect the competitive training schedule. It is a time to introduce key components of training that will be repeated and reinforced during the regular season. It should also help athletes develop sound training habits they will continue to build upon during the competitive season.

Despite my wariness of daily doubles, I realize they push athletes to extend their physical limits while developing mental toughness and team unity at the same time. I do understand the value of these rites of passage and why coaches are reluctant to change the tradition.

In the case of the soccer program, the teams were already working in four-day blocks during the two-week preseason, so my first recommendation was to keep this four-day scheduling, but reformat the morning and afternoon workloads and most importantly, include a recovery day in each block. Previously, daily doubles continued until athletes could no longer train due to injuries or fatigue. The teams would typically practice hard twice a day for four or five consecutive days before a welcomed day off.

Also during earlier years, the morning sessions were devoted to soccer-specific training, and the afternoon sessions consisted of soccer-specific work again, a conditioning session, or both. Now, morning sessions, the longest and toughest of the day at 75 to 90 minutes, continue to be devoted to soccer-specific training because this is when the athletes are feeling most fresh–both physically and mentally. But workload for the afternoon sessions looks a little different.

The first afternoon of each four-day block is an aerobic conditioning session, while the second afternoon is reserved for strength training. The third afternoon is left open for working on special skills like corner kicks or setting up specific plays–activities that require time for coaching, but far less energy expenditure from the players. Watching game film is another option here, or if muscle soreness and fatigue are very high, a recovery workout in the pool can be implemented.

Finally, the fourth day is a true recovery day. No on-field training takes place and athletes are expected to “do whatever it takes” to recover for the next training day. This may include eating a good breakfast and scheduling time in the athletic training room for ice or contrast baths or therapy. The day might conclude with a team dinner and a movie or video games.

One of the biggest adjustments in the new scheduling of the blocks was the integration of team lifts. In previous years, the teams didn’t lift at all during the preseason. But around the time I started making these changes, we hired our new strength coach, who had a philosophy (which I wholeheartedly agree with) that preseason lifting is very important both to maintain strength and help athletes learn to incorporate lifting into a busy competitive schedule.

Replacing a running or aerobic conditioning session with a lifting session allows for the players to get more recovery time from impact work. Though they are still making strength gains and working hard in the weightroom (which our coaches love), the work is low to no impact, which helps reduce overuse injuries. On top of all this, I also knew that in the past our athletes had struggled to regain their lifting form when returning to the weightroom once the regular season started, so starting to lift earlier got them back on track faster.

THE NEXT STEP
It was obvious from the beginning that the modified program worked. The athletes were still being pushed hard and we could tell they were tired, but we also saw far fewer injuries throughout the two weeks of daily doubles. Plus, when the players returned to the field after their rest days, they were refreshed and ready to train hard.

However, despite our progress in reducing injuries over the next couple of preseasons, I was still concerned about the cumulative effect that multiple blocks of two-a-day workouts can have on athletes’ bodies. Yes, athletes will become fatigued during the preseason, and that will likely never change. But the unanswered question was, did they recover in time for their first regular season game? Were we sacrificing being competitive in our first few contests by working so hard in the preseason?

To examine whether this concern had merit, a student and I conducted a small research project last fall. We set out to evaluate lower extremity strength and fatigue just prior to the start of preseason practices and then again two days before the team’s first game.

We conducted three tests on all of the players on the men’s team: a standing long jump, a countermovement vertical jump, and a 6×30-meter repeat sprint ability (RSA) test. The jump tests are reasonable assessments of short-term muscle power output and neuromuscular fatigue, while the RSA test gives us both a best sprint time and a fatigue index. We decided not to include an aerobic test because of the time it would require and its potential fatiguing impact so close to the start of the competitive season.

The results in all three tests showed no gain or loss between the two testing sessions. While an increase in performance at the end of the preseason may have been expected, we just wanted to make sure that the new preseason program did not create enough cumulative fatigue to impact the team’s first game. With no change in the test results, we could safely say that it did not. This testing was important because it proved that the players were not being worked beyond a limit from which they could not recover with a few key rest days.

It was great to determine that the general format of our new blocks with built-in recovery days was reducing injuries while still providing the training the coaches felt was needed, but we didn’t stop there. In fact, I have increased my efforts to monitor the players’ daily workload during preseason workouts.

Using the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE), I ask each athlete to report on the difficulty of every practice or workout. The scale ranges from three to 10, three being no exertion at all and 10 being game-like exertion. (See the note at the end of this article for where to learn more about the RPE.) With this data, I calculate the total training load for each session and the total for each day using the following formula:

(Morning activity length in minutes x RPE rating) + (Afternoon activity length in minutes x RPE rating) = Daily total.

Monitoring workloads during the preseason using this method is one of the best ways to prevent overtraining and avoid injury. The players’ average morning scores tend to range from 700 to 900 while the afternoon scores range from 400 to 600. When team scores are consistently at the high end of this range, I let coaches know.

Recent research suggests that declines in psychological markers and other subjective measures of overtraining frequently precede actual physical reductions in performance. So using the RPE allows us to identify fatigue in time to avoid serious consequences. Most good coaches, like ours, are able to spot athlete fatigue when watching practice drills, but a second opinion from me doesn’t hurt.

CONTINUING COMMUNICATION
Tinkering with a sports tradition can be a hard sell, so you may be wondering how I convinced the soccer coaches to try these changes. At first, I didn’t even try. When I started working with the teams over a dozen years ago, I was viewed as somewhat of an outsider because I had never played the game and was approaching the teams’ training from a very scientific standpoint. Our entire coaching staff has played professionally, and sometimes my arguments didn’t hold much water against their experience.

The key was to make incremental changes instead of rolling out a completely new approach to the preseason. Early on, I had earned the trust of the coaches when they liked the results of my changes to conditioning activities, but that did not give me the right to demand wholesale changes across the entire program. I spent many years watching and listening before I suggested any adjustments.

I also enjoy an advantage that not a lot of other strength and conditioning coaches do: I only work with one sport. This means I am able to focus my energy on a specific plan just for our soccer athletes. I check in on practices a few times a week and attend every home game for both the men’s and women’s teams. And as a professor, I teach many of the soccer players and see them in the hallways regularly. I get to know their habits and likes and dislikes, and they trust me.

When I did start suggesting changes to the coaching staff, I only proposed those that I knew would work. I never tried to push my ideas too hard, even when we all sat down for some pretty frank discussions about training philosophies. In the end, the soccer coaches, the head strength coach, and myself all wanted to see better results and better performance, and that’s what made the tweaks possible.

Continuing to communicate with the athletes via the RPE has also been a big help, not only for their safety, but also as evidence of the new preseason format’s effectiveness. The athletes trust that what we’re doing is working, and if they’re extra tired, they don’t hesitate to tell me or the coaching staff.

The changes we have implemented in our soccer programs’ preseason have occurred over several years and always after considerable discussion among myself and the coaching staff. If you are considering instituting changes to any of the programs you work with, I suggest changing only a few things at time and letting the dust settle before making more.

Small changes that allow for a little more recovery time can cut down on injuries significantly and result in better performance. Our athletes are proof of the success that can follow.

For more information about the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion scale, visit the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control Web site at: www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/measuring/exertion.html.

Sidebar: DAYS OF SUMMER

One of the best ways to reduce injuries during the fall preseason is to have athletes arrive on campus in shape and ready to practice–but that’s often easier said than done. The reality is that summer conditioning programs are voluntary and many athletes don’t follow through on the direction they’ve been given. Here are a few tips on devising a program that athletes will follow.

The general rule for summer conditioning is to make the activities meaningful and manageable. Too complex or too demanding and the athlete won’t complete the work. Too simple or easy and the athlete won’t benefit. Currently, the team’s strength coach provides a specific summer training program for each athlete, and I provide the conditioning activities.

My preference for summer conditioning is to focus on fewer but more essential goals, so it’s advantageous to find out which areas would be best to hone in on for a specific sport. For soccer, developing basic hamstring and core strength along with a sound aerobic base are paramount, so I concentrated on these three areas when I began devising our teams’ summer program years ago.

As school lets out each spring, I send athletes home with just two sheets of paper–one detailing examples of interval runs and another detailing examples of form running plyometric drills. Players are asked to do some combination of the following workouts on a weekly basis. Before beginning any activity, a 10-minute jog, easy stretch, and stridework is required.

• Form running plyometric drills one to two times a week (examples include bounding, skips for distance or height, lateral movements including jumping and shuffling, backward-stepping walks, and cariocas)

• Interval runs twice a week (selecting two different runs each week)

• Hill run every other week

• 50- to 60-minute easy run once a week

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