During the off season there are athletes that go out and continue to train hard for their next season. Then, there are athletes that go through the motions and workout infrequently in an attempt to maintain their strength and there are athletes that during pre-season training, suddenly realize how out of shape they have let themselves become and find themselves struggling to catch up to where they need to be.
What many athletes don’t realize is how quickly the body can regress back to pre-training levels after periods of de-training when duration and intensity is reduced. Research has shown that these changes also occur more quickly with women than men both aerobically and anaerobically. However, for both genders off season is arguably the most crucial time for an athlete to focus on maintaining training and preparing the body for the next season
Goals for the off-season include:
Providing a base level of conditioning,
Preparing the body for more intense training,
Combating muscle imbalances to reduce the risk of injuries.
Often times during the season, the body experiences very repetitive movements and some muscles are worked more than others due to the nature of the sports we engage in. There are three planes of movement the body works through and sometimes in sports we are in one plane of movement more than the others. During the off season we can emphasize increased strength and mobility in the other muscles and planes of movement that don’t always get enough attention and can lead to injuries.
Off-season training is one area where athletes can get a tremendous bang for their buck. Before we get into specifics, we have to define the off-season. The off-season is a period of time when an athlete is not participating competitively in their sport. Team sports like football, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, and baseball have a clearly defined off-season. With the oftentimes overly demanding schedules of many youth sports teams, many young athletes jump from travel to all-star and then varsity high school teams hoping to get ahead without leaving any time for an actual off-season.
It is critical for all athletes to have some type of off-season built into the year. Playing sports at highly competitive levels is taxing on the human body. High school pitchers undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery, tennis players with wrist and rotator cuff issues and knee/ankle problems from the repetitive stresses of jumping and landing on the basketball or volleyball court are all predictable consequences associated with overuse and lack of rest for young athletes. It is what would seem to be common sense: You cannot race a car hard every single day at the track without something eventually breaking down. The human body responds in much the same way.
The off-season downtime is an opportunity to perform technical skill work or practice but at a much lower intensity and volume than during your competitive season. For example, this would be the time a football player develops speed and agility, basketball player could improve quickness and eye hand coordination or an athlete from any sport can increase speed endurance or technical work. The key takeaway here is you are not playing your sport at competitive max or “racing speed.”
So what should the training be like when an athlete is not in season?
Improving fundamental movement patterns like jumping, landing, decelerating, squatting, hinging at the hip, pushing, and pulling all improve overall athleticism.
The conditioning work done to the aerobic system in the off-season provides the base for the higher-intensity demands to come in the pre-season and competitive seasons. The improvement of general strength creates the potential to sprint faster, jump higher, and throw harder during the competitive season. You simply cannot build these qualities in the middle of a competitive season. Instead, you must build these qualities in the off-season so they can be expressed during the competitive season. In a typical 4-12 week off-season, three of the most common goals:
- Develop the aerobic energy system ( Endurance )
- Improve general strength ( Growth, Explosive ability )
- Clean up movement patterns
Regardless of the sport, a well-conditioned aerobic system is essential. Obviously, a well-conditioned aerobic system will benefit someone like a distance runner or soccer player. However, what most people don’t understand is that a fine-tuned aerobic system provides benefits in almost any sport since the aerobic system (energy with oxygen) is responsible for replenishing the fuel for the anaerobic energy system (energy without oxygen). In other words, football and hockey players need their aerobic system to replenish the anaerobic systems that allow them to perform bursts of high-intensity work intervals. This is a tremendous advantage late in the game during the competitive season, and it can only be accomplished by doing some work dedicated to improving the ability of the cardiovascular system to deliver oxygen to working muscle.
Off-season training for youth athletes should also have an emphasis on lifting heavy things and putting on some muscle mass. The force a muscle is able to produce is directly related to its cross-sectional area. If you want to be able to run, jump, and throw harder next season, strength training is essential. Strength training simply means you are going to stress the muscle by lifting something heavy, and your body will respond by making it bigger and stronger. An athlete does not have to go to the weight room or have access to fancy equipment to strength train. In fact, for most youth athletes, bodyweight is the best place to start. After all, if you cannot move your own body weight appropriately, adding 50 pounds on top of your back is asking for an injury.
When strength training, the focus should be on movement patterns rather than on specific muscles. For example, you want to improve strength in fundamental movement patterns such as squatting, hip hinging, pushing, pulling, and core stability. This is easily done with body weight, free weights, sandbags, and resistance bands. It is not easily done with the machines you find in most gyms that isolate specific muscles and joints.
Building a solid foundation of strength in the off-season is followed by learning how to express that newly developed strength during the pre-season and fully expressing the strength in the competitive season. The key here is to focus on improving general strength in the off-season and then working during the pre-season and competitive season to apply it.
The final objective of the off-season is to clean up movement patterns. This is the time to make sure you can absorb force correctly, clean up fundamental patterns, and develop good posture. This aspect of training is becoming even more important in today’s society. Think about the amount of time children spend sitting on the computer, texting on their phone, and sitting in classrooms. It is causing an epidemic of bad posture and inefficient movement in those compromised positions. Even worse, training and competing in compromised positions is a major contributing factor to several youth sports injuries such as (stress fracture in the lower back) and shoulder injuries. When you spend all day hunched over and your lower back is in excessive curvature, you develop poor posture, and this can set off any number of ailments when training load is increased.
If you look at everything presented about off-season training and put it in the context of the bigger picture, it becomes clear how important it is when thinking long-term. Most parents and coaches are only concerned with the short-term. They want to win the big game next week, win the tournament this weekend, or make the U-13 all-star soccer, Lacrosse team. They may achieve those things, but they take shortcuts to get them, such as skipping the off-season. Those shortcuts eventually catch up.
On the other hand, the true champion athletes are focused on the long-term from the very beginning, and they never take shortcuts. They do the work in the off-season, and over the course of years, they develop outstanding conditioning and strength while often avoiding injury. They also are the ones who may have missed out on winning the championship in 7th grade, but they eventually end up with scholarship offers and notable accomplishments when it counts.
If you pay the price of time and sweat during off-season training, you will reap the benefits during the heat of the battle in-season.
Getting help from professional and experienced strength and conditioning coach will continuously motivate you and ensure that you are not just training harder, but training smarter, in order to stay on top of your game and a step ahead of competition!