The Importance of In-Season Sports Performance Training: Part 1, If You Don’t Use It You Lose It!

By: Tim Hanaway

Sports Performance Director

Velocity Norwood

Strength, in my opinion, is the single most important physical attribute that an athlete can possess as strength is literally the precursor to all forms of athleticism. Want to get instantly faster, more agile, quicker, more explosive, and maintain more endurance? Strength training will significantly enhance all of them. Adopting a ground-based, functional strength-training program that utilizes upper and lower-body, compound movements is genuinely the key to athletic success and longevity in my humble opinion.

The biggest challenge with strength and power training is that all the amazing benefits we associate with it from a scientific standpoint (i.e. increases in force production, speed of muscle contractions, inter-muscular coordination, enhanced ground-reaction time, etc.) are in fact reversible. Yes, you read that, right! All the hard work and performance gains an athlete makes during the off-season, or pre-season can, in fact, go away when this type of training is not maintained for prolonged periods.

The realities of In-season:

The above fact is one that I find often takes young parents and athletes by surprise. “How could this be?” A father might ask, as they then explain that their son or daughter plays for 2 travel teams, a rec team and their school team. “Surely, all that practice and hard-work would go a long way towards enhancing fitness?”

The truth is that more often than not, practices are simply not focused or intense enough in-season to stress a young athlete’s body to develop or maintain strength or fitness levels.

To illustrate this point, let me give you some perspective: A head coach is more often than not focused on their own “one thing” during the season, which is winning. Simply put, priorities change once the season starts! Head coaches are instead more focused on tactics, plays and improving all the areas of need highlighted in the previous week’s game, compared to fitness and strength gains.

In using basketball as an example, if the team didn’t get enough rebounds during the last game, you better believe the coach is going to have the athletes perform lots of ‘box out’ drills in order to re-enforce technique and try to remedy the situation. Likewise, if the team’s offense wasn’t functioning properly, chances are that same coach is going to spend a significant amount of time in practice that week walking through/going over all the plays at a moderate pace/intensity in order to “iron out the kinks” and fix any confusion.

So what does this mean from an observational/practical standpoint? Well, it most likely means that the 5 starters on the team will go through the plays at a moderate intensity (at best), with the remaining 10 players standing around and watching from the sideline for prolonged periods of time. Yes, the truth is, go to any team practice in-season and chances are that you are going to witness a significant amount of standing around, talking, and direction from the coach, with much less time dedicated to all-out scrimmages or drills attempting to simulate game-day conditions, compared to pre-season activity. This same trend is far from uncommon and readily identified within a scientific study conducted by Wellman and colleagues (2007) that looked to compare the differences between pre-season and in-season practices and game-times among NCAA Division I football players.

The fact is, whether discussing the height of collegiate sport or your average middle-school or high school team, studies like this one show that athletes simply do not experience the same kind of workloads during the in-season period compared to pre-season, as much more time is instead dedicated to tactics. So, what is the outcome of this rather apparent paradox if an athlete is no longer strength and power training, while simultaneously experiencing even less fitness training within a typical in-season practice?

In a study performed on elite male rugby and football players, McMaster and colleagues (2013) found that strength levels have a tendency to decrease after a three-week period when no form of strength activity is maintained. In addition, according to Meylan and colleagues (2013), the decay rates of strength parameters for youth athletes can show an even more marked difference, especially for those athletes who have not yet hit their growth spurt. According to the researchers, these athletes lost more strength and forgot it even quicker compared to their peers who have had already hit their growth spurt!

The Good News:

As dismaying as this information may be, the good news is that there are some very practical solutions that athletes can undertake in order to mitigate the negative effects of the paradoxical in-season strength and fitness loss. For example, If the mantra ‘use it or lose it’ is clearly relevant in this case, the simple solution, of course, is to ‘use it’ by strength training in-season! However, in speaking with the same parent from the above example that is already questioning how they could possibly train 4x per week in-season, when they are already juggling so much between the numerous teams and practices their son/daughter is already participating in, the good news is that you do not need to train nearly as long or as frequently in-season in order to maintain all the performance gains made in the off or pre-season!

To illustrate, in a study conducted on male handball players (Hermassi et al. 2017), researchers found that in as little as two sessions per week athletes were able to maintain their performance gains, while another study found that so long as intensity was kept high, athletes (in this case rowers) were able to maintain their performance gains in as little as one session per week (Bell et al. 1993).

Call to Action:

So now that the negative effects of training cessation have been presented, and the fact that as little as one session per week can effectively maintain strength and fitness gains throughout the course of a season, the question beckons, what can you do to safe-guard and maximize your son or daughter’s performance gains?

The answer is

Maintain an in-season strength and conditioning routine that can be executed in a little as one hour per week.

Our experience – and the experience of the athletes who train with us – confirms that this is all it takes to make sure they finish the season just as strong as they were at the start. In addition to meaning these athletes perform well during the season it also means that their strength improvements do not have to be regained at the end of each season, effectively accelerating their performance at a rate greater than their peers.

References:

Bell, G. J., Syrotuik, D. G., Attwood, K., & Quinney, H. A. (1993). Maintenance of Strength Gains While Performing Endurance Training in Oarswomen. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology,18(1), 104-115. doi:10.1139/h93-010

You need to know: strength is more than just weight on a barbell

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