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In-Season Training, an evidence-based breakdown

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In-Season Training, an evidence-based breakdown

In-season training. I just lost the attention of the majority of high school coaches (and unfortunately some college ones). But why? It's simple really, most people don’t trust things they don’t understand fully and most coaches are knowledgeable in their respective sports, but lack some strength and conditioning knowledge. So let’s break it down. 


Before you (and rightfully so at this point) disregard this with a “who is this guy”, I figure I should introduce myself. I spent two years as a collegiate strength and conditioning coach as well as an additional 5 years coaching privately. In that time frame, teams I have coached have won 19 conference championships in and qualified to NCAA tournaments 6 times; on the track athletes have qualified for NCAAs 18 times, earning 6 All-Americans. My high school athletes have received scholarships to compete at schools such as the University of Illinois. Throughout my coaching/athletic career, I have received mentorship from coaches such as Ryan Whiting, Bo Sandoval, Drew Frizzel, and Brian Lahr.


So, what’s the point of in-season training? I’ll tell you what it isn’t - it is NOT to get stronger; it could happen, but it's not the goal. In fact, when I pitch training in-season to an athlete or coach I describe it as an attempt to not lose any strength (large generalization, but you get the point). Losing strength or atrophying (commonly referred to as detraining) is often a cause of athletes being more likely to get injured as a season goes on, or no longer performing at their best.


The Science

So to begin I would like to establish some basic understanding of the training process, the concept of detraining, and some physiological truth.

First, it is well established that as muscle cross-sectional area increases, so does the capacity of the muscle to produce force. Therefore, larger muscles means a larger capacity to produce force; however, there are additional factors that determine how much force is produced such as the athlete’s ability to eccentrically absorb force (here’s to you, Cal Dietz/triphasic training fans). 


I feel comfortable saying that it is generally agreed upon that speed/strength training during the offseason and preseason is a must for any team/program trying to perform at their best. I will also generalize and say that most people agree it helps athletes be stronger, run faster, jump higher, perform better, and mitigate SOME injuries (NOT ALL). So we get to the start of the season and just stop? Sounds fair, I mean we have to practice and play games, right? Right - but that is not the truth that you likely believe it is. 


Studies have shown that detraining occurs in as little as 5-7 days for qualities such as speed endurance, which would be detrimental to performance in team sports like football, soccer, or basketball where athletes go through repeated periods of short sprints. Additionally, research conducted by the NSCA has shown that destraining with respect to strength/muscle mass can occur in as little as two weeks. Unless your season is shorter than those timeframes, you really need to train during the season. And before you say that you do sprints, why are you doing the sprints? Is it really to train speed? Or are you doing it because that’s what your coaches did? 


My Experience

During my two years at Greenville University I had the pleasure (or occasionally displeasure - depending on the day) of training every single student-athlete on campus. During my first year at Greenville, it was difficult to push for my programming with certain coaches and as a result the men’s and women’s soccer programs did not train in season with me. At the start of the season the guys and gals looked SHARP. As detraining set in, the injuries/aches and pains started to pile up on both sides and neither team finished strong. At the end of the year I sat the coaches down and talked through where I felt we fell short and we hit the offseason/spring season hard. Between a killer GPP program, periodized sprinting protocol, and a strength program that blew their numbers up (I’ll gladly sell it to you if you ask!) The offseason was thoroughly planned and the coaches agreed to train in-season during my second year. 


After summer break the students came back looking sharp just like they did the previous season and looked competitive against tough out of conference teams and pulled off some impressive upsets before conference play began. This was where I as a coach got nervous, while I believed in the program there are so many factors out of a coach’s control (are the kids eating/sleeping, what outside stresses they deal with, etc). As the conference schedule continued we started handily beating the teams that we had previously slowed down against and were actually watching the other teams slow down and get weaker. Now I won’t claim total responsibility because the athletes do all the work and the sport coaches handle film, scouting, recruiting, and game planning but what I will say is that the opponents both the men and women beat to advance to the NCAA tournaments were better than us on paper. We were just able to be at our best for longer and both programs made the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history. 


My Recommendation

Now, what about your team? What about your athlete? Great questions. Here is a straightforward breakdown that you can follow or adapt to your situations. Please note that the athletes I have worked with have all been either collegiate/high-level athletes with advanced training ages. If your athletes are younger and you have questions, just reach out!

In-Season order of operations:

  1. Sport - Game/Competition (nothing replaces playing)

    1. If the team/athlete is feeling bad, EVERYTHING ELSE IS SKIPPED, make them eat and rest so they can recover for their next competition or be ready for the next training session.

  2. Speed work (do any top speed work BEFORE practice)

    1. Top speed work should go before practice because an athlete will only hit top speeds when they are not fatigued. Athletes need to spend time at top speed.

    2. Athletes will rarely reach top speed in games or training where they often have extra equipment or external factors (like the other team) they need to react to which slows them down.

      1. Top speed work should be done without equipment. Sport specific speed work done in practice will provide enough stimulus for athletes to be prepared for competition.

    3. The key here is proper rest intervals and NOT running a ton of volume; hit top speed, and get to practicing your sport

  3. Sport - Practice

Speed work before practice? I must have lost my mind. But, refer to earlier when I mentioned that strength work in-season is for maintenance/mitigating losses and that athletes detrain top speed in as little as two days.This same concept applies to sport skills within a season, there is not enough time to improve individual skills when you have to install new game plans/study film - skill based practice exists largely to stay sharp/prepare for specific situations, not necessarily for improving during the season (especially with highly skilled athletes). Therefore, I would do just enough speed work before practice to incite a training effect and then get on to game plan installs/drills.

  1. Strength

    1. Sport-specific movements

    2. Rate of force development (olympic lifts, plyos, etc)

    3. Primary compound movements

    4. Accessory movements


You will notice a major thing about this “order of operations”, namely that there is NOT a “conditioning” component. During the season ALL conditioning work should be done through the sport, any extra volume is detrimental to performance and will greatly add to injury risk. I say this with as much sincerity as possible, stop doing “sprints/conditioning” after practice or as punishment. There are better, safer ways to get your point across that do not threaten to hurt performance outcomes (or give football players rhabdo).


We can argue the specific merits of certain exercises/training protocols another time (and I welcome the discourse), but it should be shouted from the rooftops that performance training in-season is a must if you are serious about performance - whether you are a high school/club coach, or a parent of an athlete reading this post.


Happy training,

Zach Anderson, CSCS

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