By: Jeff Lunn
First off, a well-structured in-season program is only as good as a properly implemented pre-season program. That pre-season program is what lays the foundation for the in-season demands of competition. Then the purpose of the in-season program is to maintain those strength, power and endurance gains from that pre-season program. Now that does not mean lifting a decent amount of load is out of the question, but we also have to take into account the physical demands of practices and games. So training frequency and intensity have to go down in order to avoid any sort of overtraining stimulus. Along those same lines, we also have to take into account positional differences in certain sports and starters or bench players. Workload for each individual athlete will determine how intense each training session should be and can be. The overall goal of in-season training shouldn’t be the improvement in the weight room; it should be to prepare the body to perform at its peak in competition.
The sole purpose of in-season training is to maintain the strength and power improvements that were made in the pre-season program. It has been shown that after approximately 6 or 7 weeks of in-season competition, we start to see a decrease in strength, sprint speed, and vertical jump performance. As a season carries on, the load of games and practices each week will only get more and more stressful on the body. That increased stress can in turn increase injury risk and decrease performance capabilities. And if one session per week in-season can maintain all of those performance factors and keep the athletes healthy, then why would you not try to do it?
One study looked at a professional soccer team and the effects of in-season training on their players. Ronnestad et al looked at the effects of implementing a 1 time per week versus 1 time every other week training session for 12 weeks in-season. Both groups went through a twice per week pre-season training program. They used 4 tests: 1RM half squat, 40-m sprint, SJ and CMJ. These were measured before the pre-season, right after the pre-season prior to the regular season and at the 12-week mark of this study. This study showed that the every other week training session group yielded a decrease in the squat and sprint metrics. The once per week group saw the pre-season training levels stay the same. There was no difference in the jump testing from the pre-season numbers in either group. So all this study shows is that a simple once per week training session will maintain those gains made in a pre-season program.
Another study by Marques et al looked at a group of elite swimmers at approximately 16 years old and implemented an in-season training program. All these athletes completed a 4-week preseason program. The tests they administered were 1RM bench press and squat, countermovement jump, maximum pull up and timed 50-meter freestyle in the pool. The study then followed the group, a mix of male and female swimmers, over a 20-week in-season training period. The athletes trained 2 times per week for 2 cycles of 9 weeks. The training consisted of lower load variables, low volume and low frequency, but lifting with maximal velocity and intent. The study found that all the variables following the 20-week intervention increased significantly, even the timed freestyle test. So this study just shows that athletes can make improvements in the training during the season, and that can translate into competitive performance.
So there are a couple differences between these two studies. One was examining professional athletes and the other was looking at youth swimmers (still competing at national levels). So depending on the youth athletes previous training experience before that 4-week pre-season program, these changes could have also been a result of lower training age and those initial neuromuscular improvements. The other difference was one study put the athletes through one day per week for training and the other implemented 2-days per week. It would be interesting to see if the professionals had a second day included into their program to see if they yielded improvements during the season as well. Now these are two sports with a high load during the season, so the only thing we have to be careful about is an overtraining stimulus. I think it would be safe to make the statement that an additional day could yield some improvements for most athletes, as long as you follow the low load, frequency and volume variables. So if one day can provide consistency and two days has the potential to provide improvements, then why would you not consider training in season?
What Should an In-Season Program Look Like?
Emphasizing a proper warm-up with a focus on soft tissue, mobility and activation work will provide the athlete a whole host of benefits. Minor injuries here and there can occur and a lot of the basics of a warm up can help the athlete feel better, especially soft tissue work. Now, if athletes are coming to see you right after a practice then the soft tissue work and stretching can be a focus following the lift. Low-level plyometrics and acceleration drills can be included as well, but shouldn’t strain the in-season athlete too much. The strength-training program should not be a long drawn out training session, 30 minutes of 6-8 movements would be plenty to elicit a training benefit. We see a lot of people talking about lifting heavy in season, but we have to consider the risks along with the benefits of strength training in-season.
Generally, most in-season athletes will come and see you right before or right after a practice. So obviously if they are coming to see you before practice, focusing on a proper warm up is key. Five or more minutes of soft tissue work, depending on the overall consensus of the athletes, is where we start. Mobility work should focus on common areas of concern for those athletes; generally we see tight hips, quads and hamstrings so the focus should be placed there. Activation should focus on all the core musculature. A proper dynamic warm-up is next in line, sometimes we like to incorporate ladder work here as well to achieve a CNS stimulus. Followed by some low-level plyometric work that focuses mostly on proper landing mechanics and stability. Then 1 linear acceleration drill and 1 lateral acceleration or change of direction drill can also be included. Then we lift. This is all before practice, if athletes are coming to see you after practice then a majority of this can be skipped and athletes can go right into the lift. A post-lift soft tissue and mobility session may be a good option for these athletes if that is the case.
Now lets get to the hotly debated topic of strength training. A lot of strength coaches out there advocate for heavy strength training in-season, which can be fine as long as we are following the low threshold concept. My belief personally is that during the season athletes are not trying to improve their training numbers, they are trying to be at their best for each competition. The risk-reward level does not favor the athlete when you are tying to lift too heavy in-season. All it takes in any strength training session is one bad repetition to do harm to that athlete, especially when they are already fatigued from the rigors of a season. The total time for the lift should take a maximum 30 minutes, and that is if the athletes are focused and on time which obviously doesn’t always happen. I would rather have the athletes leaving a session feeling like they could have done more and refreshed, rather than being gassed and pushed to the brink of total fatigue (which should be the case for anyone’s session). That would result in a detriment to their performance.
Since the demands of competition and practice are so high during the season, it is important to understand how your athletes are feeling from session to session. The ability to pivot and make adjustments each session is the biggest key to in-season training. Some days it may be more beneficial to focus on recovery than others. This screening process starts when an athlete walks through your doors. Now, some athletes may need a higher training stimulus on certain days based on positional or playing time differences within their sport. This all comes from knowing your athletes and communicating with them.
The idea of pivoting and adjusting the program from session to session is a lesson all strength and conditioning coaches should be able to apply to all their athletes, but it is especially important for in-season athletes. The high demands of their sport put them at greater risks for injuries and increased soreness and fatigue. The simple way to find out how your athlete is feeling is to just ask them. Everyday you should be screening your athletes. You do that by paying attention to how they look walking in and engaging with them. Encourage blunt honesty, the goal of these sessions are to make the athlete feel refreshed when they leave, not even more exhausted. Sometimes it might benefit the athlete to do some more soft tissue and mobility work, and then extremely low load resistance training to train 4 or 5 movement patterns.
Now, there are times when athletes may not see the most playing time or their position doesn’t call for a high training stimulus during a competition. So this could be a time to stress their system and really give those athletes a good training stimulus. Obviously, that does not mean put them in situations where the load may be too heavy and put them at risk to be injured. That being said, these athletes can be pushed a little more since they may not be getting the same strain as the starters or players on the team that take up a lot of the minutes. And the opposite is true for the athletes that get the bulk of playing time.
All this being said, you need to have an understanding of each individual athlete. Within a group it can be tough, but reading body language and talking with the athletes will give you an idea of what to do each session. Having a plan in place is the first step, and that will make it easier to pivot. The main goal of in-season training is to either maintain or slightly increase strength gains accomplished in a pre-season program and hope the athletes leave the session feeling better than when they walked in. This can act as an injury risk reduction tool and recovery from competition or practice strategy. Be smart about in-season training and make sure those athletes are prepared for competition.