As I am sure we are all aware, there is a global pandemic kicking around at the moment, which has had a colossal impact on a worldwide scale, including an impact on sporting & athletic events. Many countries have introduced social distancing to help spread the virus, to varying degrees of success. Due to the impact of the virus, this has meant that leisure & fitness facilities (I.e gyms) have been closed indefinitely, and sporting events have been postponed, cancelled rescheduled etc.
For athlete’s this will be particularly devastating, from a physical preparation and psychological perspective. Having the routine, and the escape of training and games for many athletes helps them remain in psychological equilibrium. Covid 19 hasn’t so much disrupted equilibrium but launched it into the fucking stratosphere. This is a tough time to deal with, and the stress amongst everyone is (understandably) high. You can feel the tension in the shops, you can feel it on the streets. That awkward shuffle that you used to do to avoid an oncoming pedestrian that happened just in front of you? People are now planning from 50ft how to avoid the person at the other end of the street. This is not normal living, and it is taking a mental toll. And there is no shame in that. Whether you are an athlete or not.
Warning – mini rant incoming
Many, particularly those with underlying mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, PTSD etc are struggling to find the motivation to do anything. Be it work, academic responsibilities, exercise or even just getting out of bed and getting dressed in the morning. And it anything to be ashamed of.
There are many, especially in the fitness industry, following the “no excuse / go hard or go home” bullshit right now who are putting others down for not following that “hustle and grind” life and coming out of lockdown with their own business and a Ferrari, and it’s absolute bullshit. The people that are professing this and trying to seem like they are all high and mighty because they have been productive and started their own multimillion-dollar company with 10 Ferraris (ok maybe a slight exaggeration there) haven’t got the foggiest about mental health, and are not worth bothering with. Prioritising your health, especially mental health, right now takes priority over everything. Anyone who tells you otherwise or deliberately tries to make you feel shit because of how you feel or your lack of productivity can get in the fucking sea. You have to look after number 1, end of. Do not beat yourself up if you aren’t as productive, nor as active as normal. Because life right now is not normal
Mini rant over – sorry about that
However, if you are wanting to take this opportunity to better yourself in some capacity, then it can be done. This article will look at how athletes can use this opportunity to improve some of the elements of their physical fitness during this time, and also how to mitigate the effects of detraining during the Covid 19 lockdown.
Detraining, and returning to training after lay-off / reduced training volume
Firstly, you need to accept that you will have detrained to some extent. Detraining occurs from a prolonged period of time where your training volume and intensity is reduced. There are physical qualities, also known as training residuals, which decrease over time. These qualities vary in drop off reduction time, as highlighted in table 1 below.
Even if you have remained very active, you will have lost elements of your fitness from lack of playing / competing. Secondly, depending on your S&C exposure in the first place, and your equipment availability you will more than likely have lost a degree of strength and potentially muscle mass. If you have access to strength training equipment (barbells, dumbbells etc) this should theoretically have been less of an issue, dependant on your training. That does not mean that all hope is lost however, due to neural adaptations you will swing back into training fairly quickly after a lay-off, but there are some considerations to factor in.
Returning to training after time off
The majority of non-contact injuries, particularly repetitive strain injuries (RSI’s) and stress fractures come down to a mismanagement of training load. Doing too much, can cause an overload of stress, resulting in injuries. This has been reflected in the German Football leagues who have recently returned to play, where there have been a disproportionate amount of hamstring injuries occurring in a short period of time, because they players are not fit enough to cope with the training and playing demands after a long lay-off.
Recently, Marc Keyes, a Strength and Conditioning coach based in Edinburgh who has worked with a huge variety of athletes, wrote an article on returning to training after lay-off. He sums it up very well, so I would recommend checking that article out https://www.castironstrength.com/getting-back-into-training-after-a-long-lay-off/. The TL;DR version basically highlights the need for a gradual introduction back into exercise, regardless of sport and activity. Marc can also be found on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/castironstr/) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/castironstrength/).
What areas of physical fitness can be improved upon?
The good news is there are some areas which you can improve during this time. These are linear speed and aerobic capacity, both of which are key components within the majority of team and some individual sports. We will look at these separately as they are different elements which need to be considered from both a physiological and biomechanical perspective.
Aerobic capacity – Aerobic capacity is in laymans terms, your fitness levels. It involves intake and transport of O2 during activity, recovery of energy substrates during activity and at rest, which impacts the ability to efficiently utilise both aerobic and anaerobic energy systems during activity. These energy systems will be discussed in greater detail in the next article, and how they can be trained. This article will give a brief overview, and how you can begin to tailor your return to activity to maximise adaptation whilst minimising injury risk.
Due to the length of the aerobic training residuals, the aerobic energy system can be trained less frequency and still be improved. When starting back out, it would be wise to start on the lower end of the intensity scale, and a little further toward the “non-specific” end of the specificity spectrum, i.e the activity carried out should not entirely replicate the physical demands for the sport, By doing this, you are reducing the risk of inducing an RSI or similar load mismanagement injury, whilst slowly building up your general physical preparedness (GPP). Developing GPP will ensure you are ready, from a physiological standpoint, for the
higher volume & intensity training. Reintroduction to aerobic training, based off the above advice should look similar to figure 1
Sprint performance – Linear speed is another area which can be trained during this period if approached in a sensible manner. If you have been off high speed running for a while, the return to sprint should definitely be gradual. You do not want to go into a sprint session all guns blazing from a long time off, you are just rolling a dice on your hamstring pinging and that is not something you want to do. If you are in this position, start with some uphill sprints over a short distance and allow plenty of rest. Physiologically, uphill sprints are challenging, however this systematic stress is lower therefore it is a sensible starting point. Begin with twice a week, with at least 2 days in between sessions.
If you are doing other types of training, try and ensure that the amount of lower body work you are doing prior (Within 24-36 hours) to a sprint session is kept to a minimum. When warming up for a sprint session, ensure that the lower body is thoroughly warmed up, following the RAMP protocol as I recently described on a recent Instagram post (Found here - https://www.instagram.com/p/CAaELjIgFaP/) . When stopping from a sprint, don’t worry too much about deceleration to begin with. Allow the body to adapt to the higher speed running before putting it through deceleration stressors.
Once you have built up a few weeks of uphill capacity, you can start to look at incorporating sprint training on flat ground and increasing the distance a bit. Once you have built up some capacity for higher speeds and start to get into the maximal velocity (MV) stages (30m+ depending on your top end speed). Again, you will need a gradual exposure to this speed of running, as it is often during MV running where injuries occur. Plenty of rest is required for speed training as I have highlighted on a previous Instagram post (Found here - https://www.instagram.com/p/B_XNH1-gmwk/)
Which areas can we mitigate detraining in?
Our ability to improve upon maximal strength, strength endurance and muscle hypertrophy during Covid 19 is going to be dependant on the amount of equipment you do (Or don’t) have availability too. We will look at some of these variables together, as some are linked, whilst others are more unique.
Firstly, with strength, strength endurance and hypertrophy, these qualities can both be stimulated regardless of equipment availability. Hypertrophy is just a fancy way of saying muscle mass and can be elicited at both high and low intensity (Heavy and light weight). Strength endurance is our capacity to repeatedly produce high force over a long period of time. An example would be sets of 12 @ 70% of 1RM. To ensure both qualities are being stimulated during this time, we need to be training close to failure (1or 2 reps shy). In this instance, failure is classified as concentric failure. I.e you are unable to push yourself upwards during a press up. For some, simple sets and reps may be enough to achieve this, although it is unlikely in athletic populations. Therefore, we may need to get more creative. Some simple methods to make simple exercises far harder are
1) Pre fatigue the muscles prior to working out - A pre fatigue circuit such as 30s wall squat holds, 30s holds in the bottom position of a press up and 30s plank holds for 3 rounds prior to your exercise session is going to leave you in a fatigued state. This will make the relative workload harder, increase time under tension (TUT) for the working muscles & can lead to metabolite accumulation which is correlated with muscular hypertrophy.
2) Incorporate isometrics – Isometric contractions can be classified into 2 categories. These are yielding and overcoming isometrics. Looking firstly at yielding, this is when you are performing a movement e.g a squat, and you stop and hold the movement at a deliberate point. If you were to squat halfway down, hold that for 10s and then complete the rep, this
this would be an example of a yielding isometric. An overcoming isometric is when you are essentially trying to move something that will not budge. Exercises which are examples of this are typically isometric squats, isometric mid-thigh pulls and isometric pin presses. These may be trickier during covid but can still be achieved. If you were to use a deadlift as an example, you can stand on a rolled-up towel (or heavy resistance band if you have one as pictured above), make two “handles” by grabbing the towel or band in our hand and making a grip and pulling maximally into a mid thigh pull position. Juts be careful if using a towel and are particularly strong, might rip it!
3) Deliberate tempo / pauses / 1.5 reps – Slowing the movements to a deliberate tempo and pausing at certain phases of the movement are another useful tool just now. Essentially the pauses are yielding isometrics, however typical paused exercises are performed at the point where the movement transitions from the eccentric (Downward) to concentric (Upward) phase. Pausing at this phase removes the stretch shortening cycle (SSC) from the movement, which is just stored elastic energy. Deliberately slowing the tempo down, especially the eccentric phase, will help to increase TUT thus placing more strain on the muscles, increasing the relative work. You can also utilise 1.5 reps as a method for increasing TUT and relative workload. An example of a 1.5 rep during a push up would be lowering yourself to the bottom position of a push up and pausing, pushing yourself halfway back up and pausing, lowering yourself back down and pausing before pushing yourself back up fully. This would count as one rep. When you start adding these up over a set, they become challenging.
4) Density training – This is a method I am particularly fond of just now and have prescribed to all of the athletes I work with to some extent. To complete density training you create a circuit pf 5-8 exercises with a prescribed number of repetitions. You then set a timer e.g 20 minutes, and aim to complete as many circuits within the time frame. Over the weeks you can aim to increase the “density” of the session by aiming to complete more work in the same time frame. You can also increase the length of the timer, which consequentially increases the total workload. My recommendation would be 3-4 weeks on the same time and look to increase repetitions first, before increasing time. An example of a density circuit might be:
- Press ups x 10
- Squats x 10
- Reverse lunges x 10 (Each side)
- Single leg Glute bridges x10 (Each side)
- Towel row x10
- Bird dogs x10 (Each side)
20 Minute timer, as many rounds as possible in 20 mins.
The above methods will help to at least mitigate the detraining effects of Covid 19, and depending on your GPP capacity and baseline fitness, you may actually make some small improvements in muscle hypertrophy and strength endurance. Strenght is unlikely to make any real improvements, but it doesn’t mean it has to catastrophically fall off. However, the athletes who are stronger and require greater external load are likely to see greater drop offs. If you want to increase the external resistance, an investment in some resistance bands of varying strengths would not be a bad idea. You can also fill up a rucksack with multiple big bottles of water, you would be surprised the difference it makes!
In the next article, we will look at how the body works during exercise in relation to the energy systems, and how each energy system can be trained. There will be some strong links between this article and the one coming up, so keep your eyes peeled for it dropping!
Until next time and as always, stay safe, stay strong