How to Maintain Your Gains Thru a Grueling Season
With inseason for team sports well upon us I've been getting a lot of questions lately on the topic of inseason training so I thought I'd put this little article together on the subject.
Most people report some level of explosive performance decline during the season. They start off the season ready to go but a few weeks in and they're not as springy and not as fast as they were. Unfortunately, this is largely an inevitable occurence. You're practicing a lot, you're running a lot, you're under significant stress, and you get worn down physically and emotionally. Virtually ALL athletes experience this to a certain extent, even professionals. The ONLY time professional football and basketball players are truly at 100% is on day 1 of training camp. After that it's all downhill. There are some relative beginners and really out of shape athletes who play their way into shape over the course of a season and actually experience explosive gains inseason, but this is not all that common - the best MOST people can hope for is to maintain the majority of their gains during a season.
Here is a list of keys to keep in mind to help maintain your performance:
1. Seek to maintain your size and strength
Here's what typically happens: You grow increasingly fatigued, you lose muscle, you lose strength, and that causes you to lose power. It's not uncommon for players to drop 15-20 pounds over the course of a season without really even trying to. A lot of that weight may be fat but inevitably some of it will be muscle. It does seem rather contrary that a decrease in bodyweight and body-fat would lead to big time decreases in relative power but all of the running and conditioning that typically takes place inseason has a lot to do with this. All the conditioning causes extra fatigue and eventually causes you to begin to lose fast twitch muscle. So, even though you're dropping body-fat your relative power decreases. There's also a nervous system aspect as continued daily pounding causes your nervous system to become inhibited and high velocity rate coding suffers.
Since it's primarily an increase in fatigue along with a loss of muscle and strength that causes us to lose power inseason we want to focus on the opposite of that inseason. That means we want to try and do the following:
1. Decrease fatigue/increase recovery
2. Maintain muscle
3. Maintain strength
4. Be kind to the nervous system
Keep Tabs On Your Bodyweight
Unless you're significantly overweight to begin with, one of the most important things you can do to maintain your performance inseason is keep your bodyweight up. You can expect to lose a few pounds regardless of what you do but if you're going down in weight more than about 4-5% you're more than likely to run into problems. That means if you started day 1 of practice at 200 lbs you probably shouldn't let your weight drop much under 190. Some people will need to pay particular attention to the Quantity and frequency of their meals. You need calories and lots of them. Now isn't the time to be on some esoteric restrictive fat loss diet. If in doubt make a concerted effort to eat more, even if it means you have to eat some things you know aren't that great for you.
Your training should be focused on on maintaining strength while limiting fatigue. That means you'll want to keep your training at maintenance levels. One big mistake many people make inseason is they try to continue training at the same rate they did during the offseason. This just contributes to the problem of fatigue and they end up running theirself into the ground even further. The inseason is definitely not the time to focus on qualities like reactive strength and explosive power. Focus on maintaining your foundation. Fortunately it only takes about 1/3 the volume to maintain strength that it does to build strength, as long as you maintain the load and effort. A few hard sets of any given exercise once per week will allow most people to maintain 90% or more of their strength levels. Here is a sample template I recommend:
Sample Inseason Template
Hang power clean or jump squat: 3-4 sets x 3-5 reps
Squat, front squat or bulgarian split squat: 3 x 5
Reverse hyper, glute ham, or romanian deadlift: 3 x 6-10
Horizontal press variation (barbell or dumbell bench press or incline bench press): 3 x 5
Pullup or row variation: 3 x 5-8
That's the basic idea. You might add a few other auxillary exercises if time allows but the basic tenet is keep things short and sweet. Perform each exercise with good form and don't go overboard seeking to push the weights. You don't want to injure yourself or burn yourself out - your goal should be to stay close to 10% of your offseason bests over a given rep range. If you can do that you'll be in great shape. That means if your best set of squats is 300 x 5 you should seek to hit 270 x 5. Anything better is just gravy. Do this (or a similar) workout once every 5-7 days as your schedule allows. You can even do this type of workout on game days, just make sure you have a 4 hour break in between your workout and game.
2. Supplement appropriately
Most products that help promote size and strength are also good for maintaining size and strength. In my opinion creatine is great to use inseason because it increases anaerobic endurance and helps maintain strength and size gains. It's an osmolyte which promotes intracellular hydration and that increases strength leverage. There have been reports of increased cramping with creatine use, but those haven't been verified thru research. If in doubt just make sure you stay well hyrated. I recommend 5-10 grams of creatine per day. Supplemental protein and carbohydrate powders and drink mixes can also be valuable for nutritional convenience.
I also recommend a good mutivitamin (like Adam from NoW nutritionals) along with at least 1000 mg extra vitamin C per day for immune support. The last thing in the world you want to do is get sick.
There is also a little trick you can use to boost rate coding when you need it most that'll allow you to perform better than normal athletically whe you need to. This won't work if you do it all the time and shouldn't be done all the time. Save it for game days, if at all. What you want to do is eliminate all caffeine and stimulants from your normal day to day consumption. That includes all sources of caffeine like cokes, tea, energy drinks, and coffee. Stick to non caffeinated beverages like juice, water, and gatorade. Then 1-2 hours before your game take in 100-200 mg of caffeine. You can use a caffeine pill, coffee, tea, or any of the common popular energy drinks like red bull. Just make sure you have a bathroom nearby the first time you try this just in case you're one of the many whose elimination pathways are stimulated by caffeine. What'll happen is your epinephrine receptors will upregulate during the "off" time so that when you use the stuff it'll actually work.
3. Pay extra attention to sleep
If you get a chance to sleep in take it. Get to bed on time and on a consistent schedule. If you have trouble sleeping try taking 300 mg of magnesium a couple of hours before bed. Choose a magnesium form that ends in "ate" like citrate, gluconate, or orotate. If you're on a tight budget you can go to pretty much any grocery store in the world and pick up a 12 gram bottle of liquid magnesium citrate for a couple of bucks. It's sold as a laxative and will work for that purpose if you drink the whole bottle. You don't need the whole bottle for daily magnesium supplementation just take a couple of capfuls once per day.
Although a bit more on the pricey side, some of the ZMA products are also valuable because they combine magnesium with extra zinc, which will help maintain your testosterone levels.
4. Take advantage of rest days
If you get a chance to take a day of rest take it. Ideally take at least one day per week and do absolutely nothing. Your nervous system needs time to recover and one whole day of rest each week during the season can be invaluable.
That about covers it! If all else fails and you end up pissing away a significant portion of your gains realize that it's just temporary. You always have the offseason to look forward to. The great thing is once the season is over and you get a couple of weeks off and begin consistent training again you'll likely rebound back up above and beyond your best efforts. Your work capacity will be at yearly highs and that combined with a freshened up state will often allow you to set significant personal bests within a month or so after your season ends.
Good luck with it!