Player Only Workouts: What’s Missing

The actual NFL season runs from September through the Super Bowl in February, but in a very real sense the battles are won or lost in March through August.  Preparation is critical to success in football, as it is in life.  And in football, it all begins with an effective off season conditioning program.

This year, the NFL lockout has prevented players from accessing team facilities, including athletic trainers, and strength and conditioning coaches.  This lack of support can have a big impact when football ultimately resumes, both on their degree of preparation and on their ability to avoid injuries.

Football Stretch sat down with Dr. John Sullivan, Clinical Sports Psychologist, to talk about the importance of an effective off season training program, and what effect the lockout could have on players’ preparation for this season.

How does off season conditioning in the spring and summer determine what athletes can do on the field in the fall and winter?

The offseason conditioning program is like building the foundation of a house – it determines everything that the athletes can accomplish during the season.  From a performance standpoint, a proper foundation enables the athletes to develop the speed, strength and flexibility they need to perform at an elite level.

It’s also important from the overall wellness of the athlete.  Off season conditioning helps to prevent injuries during the season.  The offseason is a chance to focus training, to ‘prehab’ areas of weakness to help prevent injuries, rather than focusing on rehabilitation after an injury has occurred.

Proper conditioning prepares the body to assimilate the stresses of the NFL season, which are tremendous.  These stresses come from both the internal forces of pushing their bodies to the limits and the external forces exerted during play.  Studies have shown that three Gs of force on a football player’s body is not unusual, and helmet indicators have measured as much as twelve Gs of force during a hit.  That’s equivalent to a fairly serious car accident.

How has the off season training program changed in recent years.

Today’s NFL players perform at such a high level that they need to focus on conditioning all year long.  There truly is no offseason any more, and as soon as the season ends, players begin working out to get ready for next year.

Years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for players to take significant time off during the offseason and then play their way into shape through training camp and the season.  There’s a famous story about hall of fame running back Earl Campbell’s inability to complete a mile run in training camp.  It was a non-issue to his coach at the time.  Bum Philips famously quipped, “If it’s first and a mile, I just won’t give it to him.”

The level of performance today and the stresses the athletes face requires an effective year around program.  The NFL season is too short and the players are under too much stress to play their way into shape.  It takes time to train endurance, to train speed, to train flexibility.

What are the NFL athletes doing at this time of year?  How does the lockout affect their ability to train properly and be fully prepared for the season?

If NFL players were in minicamp right now, they would be working on general endurance, functional strength, prehabbing existing areas of weakness and working on the mental aspects of the game.  Their inability to access their facilities introduces a big wild card into offseason preparations.

Currently, the NFL players are working out, but some players have access to top notch training facilities, and others do not.  Some athletes are training with their college teams or gathering for player-organized workouts at Division 1 college facilities, but others are working out independently or gathering informally at high school fields or renting facilities.

High school teams have very different needs.  NFL players are so much bigger, faster and stronger that they have different support requirements than a high school football team.  If the players don’t have access to medical staff and athletic trainers like they would during a normal offseason, there is a much higher chance of injuries.  The ability to receive critical care and consistent care is important to having an effective and injury-free offseason program.

How can athletes measure the effectiveness of their conditioning program?  What types of metrics and tests are used?

During a normal season, the strength and conditioning staff looks closely at each player’s weight, tracks functional strength increases and biomechanics.

The weight that they are lifting increases as they work out, but their ability to control and manipulate the weight is equally important.  Changes in body composition are important, too.  Also, the training staff will look closely at functional strength related to their position and improving on particular position-related movements.

Cardiovascular fitness is critical, too, although the level of need differs significantly by position.  All players must have a sound cardiovascular base, but positions like running back, wide receiver and defensive back require better endurance.

Cardiovascular fitness is most accurately measured by testing VO2 max – a measure of the body’s efficiency at processing oxygen.  VO2 max is generally tested by running on a treadmill or biking to exhaustion, but the test itself is so taxing on the body that it can only be done at certain times, and not during the season.  New technologies that can passively test for VO2 max are now available, although not in broad usage yet.

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