“The more you sweat in times of peace, the less you bleed in times of war,” is a saying that is certainly full of wisdom. Training in the off-season is one area where athletes can get a tremendous bang for their buck. This article aims to provide wisdom, based on knowledge and experience, for training in the off-season.
Before we get into specifics we have to define what the off-season actually is. The off-season is a period of time when an athlete is not participating competitively in their sport. Team sports like football, basketball, and baseball have a clearly defined off-season. Other sports, such as tennis, have a much harder time defining one. And with the oftentimes overly intense youth sports industry, many young athletes jump from travel to all-star and then varsity high school teams hoping to get ahead and never actually have any off-season.
It is critical for all athletes, professional to youth, to have some sort of off-season built into the year. Playing sports at competitive maximums is taxing on the human body. It does not take much searching to find a sharp increase in overuse injuries for young athletes recently. High school pitchers having Tommy John’s elbow surgery, tennis players with wrist and rotator cuff issues, and knee/ankle problems from the stress of jumping and landing 100+ times on the basketball or volleyball court. It is common sense, you cannot race a car hard every single day at the track without something eventually breaking down and the human body is the same way.
If you cannot play your sport in the off-season then what can you do? First, I am not going to tell you that you cannot play your sport in the off-season. What I will tell you is that you should not be competing in your sport in the off-season. In fact, competing in your sport is the definition of being in-season. This downtime is an opportunity to perform technical skill work or practice but at a much lower intensity and volume then during your competitive season. For example, this would be the time a basketball player could improve dribbling skills or a tennis player technical stroke work. The key take away here is you are not playing your sport at competitive max or “racing speed.”
The off-season is also the time to improve foundational movement patterns, general strength and conditioning. In fact, this should be the bulk of the work done in the off-season. This work done in the off-season builds the base for the future. Improving fundamental movement patterns like 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 and competitive seasons. The improvement of general strength will allow for the athlete 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. You must build these qualities in the off-season so they can be expressed during the competitive season.
Each sport and athlete has specific needs and if you are serious about getting the most out of the off-season time I would hire a knowledgeable and experienced trainer. The gold-standard for anyone working with youth is to be certified by the International Youth Conditioning Association (IYCA) but the bottom line is do your homework and find someone who thinks long-term and has your best interest in mind. With that being said in a 6-8 week off-season 3 of the most common goals are to develop the aerobic energy system, improve general strength, and clean up fundamental 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 do not understand is that a fine-tuned aerobic system provides benefits in almost all sports. This is because the aerobic system (energy with oxygen) is responsible for replenishing the fuel for the anaerobic energy system (energy without oxygen). That means football and tennis players need their aerobic system to replenish the anaerobic systems that allow them to perform bursts of high-intensity performance 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 lungs, heart and circulatory system to deliver oxygen to working muscle.
Another benefit of aerobic training in the off-season, which would include long runs, swimming, or biking at a heart rate of 130-150 beats per minute, is that it promotes recovery. Delivering oxygen rich blood throughout the body aids in rebuilding tissues that take a beating during the competitive season. In addition, it is relatively easy on the nervous system. The nervous system takes a beating during the competitive season with all the quick movements and maximal muscle contractions and aerobic training gives it time to de-load and recover.
The off-season is also the time to lift heavy things and put on some muscle mass. The force a muscle is able to produce is directly related to its cross-sectional size. If you want to be able to run, jump, and throw harder next season then 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 50lbs on top of your back is asking for an injury.
When strength training the focus should be on movement patterns not 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 then followed up with learning how to expressing that new found strength during the pre-season and then fully in the competitive season. The key here is to understand that to focus on improving general strength in the off-season and then working during the pre and competitive season to apply it.
The final objective of the off-season is to clean up fundamental movement patterns. This is the time to make sure you can squat fully, hip hinge correctly, and have 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 moving in those compromised positions or even worse training and competing in them is a major contributing factor to youth sports injuries such as spondylolysis (stress fracture in the lower back) and shoulder injuries. It is common sense, when you spend all day hunched over and your lower back is in excessive curvature you develop poor posture as your default. Look at the pyramid of athletic development (figure 1) and it is clear to see the base for all of sport is movement. You cannot layer fitness and sports skills on top of dysfunctional movement without eventually paying the price.
It is impossible to prescribe a general workout for the off-season because the needs of each athlete and sport are unique. Some athletes may need to spend more time on developing strength and others improving conditioning. However, below is a very general yet insightful look at the typical week of training in the off-season. Planning training or periodization is a science in and of itself, but one of the biggest things to notice below is how the training is spaced out. An athlete cannot work hard 3 or 4 days in a row and then take 3 or 4 days off. Training is nothing more than applying stress to the body. The body then adapts to the stresses placed on it during rest and recovery. The real physical changes happen between workouts, not during them. Understanding the importance of rest and proper nutrition between workouts will maximize success and allow you to train both hard and smart.
If you look at everything I 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. If you understand that, then I will let you in on a little secret about developing champion athletes. Most parents and coaches are only concerned with the short-term. They want to win the big game next week, the tournament this weekend, or make the U12 all-star soccer 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 develop outstanding conditioning, strength, and stay injury free. They also are the ones who may have missed out on winning the championship in 7th grade but eventually end up with scholarship offers and notable accomplishments when it counts.
To conclude, I hope this article sheds some light on just how important off-season training really is to in-season performance. If you pay the price of time and sweat during the off-season you certainly will reap the benefits during the heat of the battle in-season.