As an athletic trainer I am often asked about the importance of a pre-season conditioning program for sports participation.

“Is it really that beneficial to participate in pre-season conditioning?”

My answer is always the same — yes, absolutely! These programs not only prepare your body for the demands of a specific sport they also help to reduce your risk of early season injury, leading directly to greater opportunity for success and growth as the season progresses. Even for athletes who participate in year round training, the pre-season is as equally important as the in-season, post-season and off-season. Pre-season conditioning programs are designed to establish a solid fitness base and gradually increase the sport specific stresses placed on your body. This method allows time for your muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones and joints to become stronger by adapting to the increased demands, thereby reducing the risk of injury.

Isn’t that what two-a-day practices are for?

No. Two-a-day practices or early season camps are intended to focus on the particular skills necessary for that sport, not general conditioning. It is pre-season conditioning programs that prepare your body to withstand the sheer volume of training created by these practices/camps. Most teams have less than a month to prepare for their first competition, and therefore coaches rely on their athletes to arrive physically prepared to play. Underprepared athletes often end up injured or too sore to perform at their maximal level, leading to poor performance and less playing time.

Isn’t weight lifting alone enough to prepare me for my sport?

Not entirely. Weight lifting alone will not prepare your body for all of the dynamic stresses of your chosen sport. Strength and power training is an essential part of conditioning as it creates greater tensile strength and resiliency in muscles, tendons and ligaments. However, agility, balance and coordination must not be overlooked as this training improves your body’s ability to quickly react with changes in speed and direction of movement. You will be less susceptible to injuries if balance/agility training is combined with a complete weight lifting program (strength and power) during the pre-season.

I played softball all summer long. Won’t that prepare me for volleyball?

Not entirely. Although it does help if you have a general fitness base, the two sports place different stresses on your body and consequently one will not entirely prepare you for the other. Volleyball requires constant and sudden change in direction, quick foot-work and frequent jumping/landing while softball involves more straight line sprinting and rotational movements (throwing and hitting). While a variety of sports participation is encouraged for young athletes, specific preparation for each is also highly recommended to minimize the risk of injury.

So what makes up a good pre-season conditioning program?

As a general guideline it should take an athlete 6-8 weeks of training to safely reach optimal performance for an upcoming season. Key components of these programs include aerobic conditioning (running/biking/swimming), flexibility (static and dynamic stretching), strength training (weight lifting, body weight exercise, plyometrics), core strengthening (abdominal/gluteals) and coordination/agility training (cones/ladder drills, etc). Most sports require frequent bursts of power or speed, sudden changes in direction, hand/eye or foot/eye coordination as well as strength and endurance. Therefore, pre-season programs should replicate those specific demands to adequately prepare athletes for their season.

10 essential principles to any conditioning program:

1. Warm up /cool down — light jog to get the blood flowing into the muscles followed by dynamic stretching to prepare for activity. Following your training, cool down with static stretching.
2. Motivation — be creative with workouts to keep the athletes interested and engaged.
3. Overload — continually increase the stress placed on the athletes to force their bodies to adapt to the greater                                   demands.
4. Consistency — workouts need to occur on a regular schedule to be effective.
5. Progression — gradually increase the workload by increasing intensity, sets or repetitions over time.
6. Intensity — work hard for short periods of time instead of moderately for longer periods of time. Quality vs. Quantity.Higher intensity = greater results.
7. Specificity — exercises should address the physical demands of that sport.
8. Individuality — group/team programs are great but each athlete may have individual areas that need to be addressed.
9. Minimize cumulative stress — allow 1-2 rest days per week to allow time for recovery.
10. Safety — focus on proper technique for all exercise in the conditioning program.

 

Sports participation should be a fun, positive and meaningful experience however lack of preparation can have a detrimental effect. Training in the months prior to the start of a sports season is critical to any athlete’s success, regardless of age or expertise. In addition to the physical advantages an athlete will gain, a successful pre-season conditioning program helps to prevent short and long term injuries. Start a program or consult with a strength and conditioning specialist today to get started on your pre-season training!
 

Patty Schmoldt is an athletic trainer, physical therapist assistant, and strength and conditioning specialist at Northern Michigan Sports Medicine Center in Petoskey.