The relative importance of in-season vs. off-season training is often debated, and through my eight years of being a sports performance coach at the collegiate level, there is no doubt in my mind that in-season training is the most valuable training period of the year.
In-season is when we are competing at the highest level in our pursuit of a championship. This is the time when we want to be at our peak performance levels, and to limit our training at this time of year is dangerous and setting the team up for failure. Training in-season isn’t as simple as prescribing reps and sets and letting the players get to work; it is a science to be able to run an effective plan while priming players for game day.In-season is when we are competing at the highest level in our pursuit of a championship, says @bigk28. Click To Tweet
In this article, I am going to discuss how to map out an effective in-season training plan, what to include throughout your training week, and how you can maximize time with your players so they are performing at peak levels on game day.
Establishing an Outline
It is impossible to make an effective training plan without understanding the demands of practice and competition. First, I would connect with your sports coach and find the answers to a few simple questions:
- What days are competitions? (You can do this yourself by looking at your team’s schedule.)
- How long is pre-season/in-season/post-season?
- Are there different themes to practice for different days of the week?
- Which days will we be conducting workouts?
- Will we be conducting workouts before or after practice?
These are crucial questions you need to answer before beginning to outline your plan. Do not go in blind when creating your program—that can be extremely problematic when it comes to preparing the athletes for competition and could potentially lead to harmful situations such as overuse, neural fatigue, and injuries.
First, and most importantly, you have to know how the game schedule is set up for the week. This can change from week to week depending on the sport you work with, but you need to have a plan for certain outlines of multiple-competition weeks. For example, a workout week consisting of competitions on Wednesday/Saturday, will look completely different from a week where you compete Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday. Map out how many times these instances occur and map out different plans for those weeks.
Next, understand how the season outline will go and map out the length of each training period:
For example, with our volleyball program, we will always have two weeks of pre-season training followed by an 11-week regular season, one-week conference tournament, and one or two weeks of NCAA play. Knowing this allows us to plan what qualities we will work on at different points in the year and how long we have to train each one. We start every athlete that hasn’t been with us for quite some time in a general preparation block. There is a ton of value in building a foundation and teaching your athletes better movement. Start from there to set yourself up for training success throughout the whole year.
Next, understand the demands of practice. If you are lucky to work with coaches that understand nervous system demand, you will be able to structure your workouts to fit the theme of the practice. For example, if I know that we are about to have a high-speed practice that will have a high CNS output effect, these are days we will incorporate our max velocity work prior to practice.If you are lucky to work with coaches that understand nervous system demand, you will be able to structure your workouts to fit the theme of the practice, says @bigk28. Click To Tweet
Based on this understanding, the next step is to figure out what days of the week your workouts will be held. Full disclaimer: there are certain days that are more ideal than others, but you can hold workouts any day throughout the week. Just remember the main goal will always be to have them primed for game day. I usually like to pick one day early in the week, preferably Monday, and the day immediately after competition. I will go into the structure of the workouts shortly, but this has been my go-to plan for most of the teams I train.
The last piece of the puzzle is to establish what time workouts will be conducted: before or after practice. There is no question in my mind that the best time to hold workouts is prior to practice. The reason is simple: there are things we need to develop from an athletic standpoint that will simply not be effective after practicing for 2-3 hours. When referencing these qualities, I am 100% talking about speed and power work. I have done workouts before and after practices and speed work is simply not effective post-practice because the athlete is fatigued.
Video 1. Team sport athletes live in acceleration—it is a quality that must be trained often. We start every workout with theme-based sprint work for both acceleration and peak velocity.
Meanwhile, there are ways to structure your workouts to prime the athletes for the practice ahead with any type of low volume speed work and a total body lift. This really isn’t up to debate within my programming anymore—if we have the opportunity to train before, we will. If not, we will have to figure out another plan of attack.
Define Which Qualities Matter the Most
This has completely changed for me over my years of being a sports performance coach. I used to be hell-bent on training strength and being strong throughout the entire season. Although I wasn’t 100% wrong in my pursuit of strength, I wasn’t necessarily right either. It is important to maintain strength levels for three primary reasons:
- Sets the foundation for acceleration development.
- Sets the foundation for training other weight room qualities (power and speed).
- Lowers the incidence of injury.
There is no question that you must be strong and work consistently if you want to stay healthy throughout the duration of a season. However, how much will strength carry over to helping your players become better athletes? For freshmen, I believe the carry over is high. A lot of the positive adaptations for freshman will come from being exposed to a new stimulus. That is why I believe the first one to two years of development for incoming players must focus on better movement and improving strength levels.The first one to two years of development for incoming players must focus on better movement and improving strength levels, says @bigk28. Click To Tweet
I would love to sit here and give you a number that is “strong enough,” but there are too many variables from individual to individual for that. Not only is there an individual factor, but the sport being played matters as well. This is my rule of thumb when it comes to strength development: if they are continuing to improve qualities that matter (speed and power), then continue to work that stimulus. As soon as they stagnate in their development, it is time to switch up your plan.It is important to understand what is most important: keeping the players fresh for game day, says @bigk28 Click To Tweet
Here is a list of assessments you can do in-season to assess different qualities.
1. Speed – This is where you need to invest in a fully automated timing system to get objective data to guide your program. My go-to assessment for speed is the 30m sprint, and from this one assessment I can get force, power, and velocity for each athlete. I am fortunate enough to have the Muscle Lab Continuous Laser, but if you are in a budget crunch, buying the MySprint App and a few cones will do just fine.
JB Morin has an amazing force-velocity spreadsheet that will spit out a range of metrics once you input them for the player. Most athletes that I work with hit peak velocity at 25-30m, so most of the time a 30m sprint will be enough distance for you to get an idea on their peak velocity. However, I will also use a fly variation somewhere between 10-20m with a 20m run-in to get a read on peak velocity as well. A simpler version of all of this would be to just get splits for anything 20m and under. If I only had two points, I would do 10-20m sprints for all my athletes to measure acceleration and fly 10-20m to measure velocity. If you have no timing gates whatsoever, a stopwatch can be used as well.
2. Repeated Power – If you are lucky enough to get a contact grid or jump mat system that measures repeated power outputs, then the Scandinavian rebound jump (5 jumps) would be my go-to test. Not only does this provide a ton of valuable information about the vertical power outputs of the athlete, but it will give you a really great reading on athlete readiness. This test is easy to implement and can be used at any point throughout the week (even gameday). If none of these options are available to you, then a triple broad jump is another great test.
3. Power – This one is simple. Use either a standing vertical jump or broad jump to measure singular power output
4. Strength – My go-to strength assessment is the isometric belt pull. The main reason for this is that there is usually a learning curve on most strength exercises to get an accurate read on strength levels. The isometric belt pull is an easy test to perform that requires a low skill level. Without it, I found it challenging to gauge where my freshman athletes were at with regards to strength, because a lot of them came in with no weight room experience. Now, if you don’t have access to a force sensor to accurately measure the belt squat, I wouldn’t recommend testing strength in-season without the use of velocity based training devices. This is where investing in velocity devices such as Vmaxpro come in handy. Instead of looking at a number like 1 RM, you can easily look at the velocity measurement of a given day compared to previous days and see if strength levels are improving. While this is at the bottom of my list for assessments, it is still extremely valuable to assess strength throughout the in-season for health reasons.
Video 2. All of our workouts have the same structure: Sprint Mechanics, Sprint Work, Plyos, Lift. Athletes will be grouped based on their assessments for lifting. In this video, athletes that showed a strength need performed Olympics lifts from the floor while those that showed a power need did Olympic lifts below the knee.
Building Out Your Daily Workout
Once you establish all of the criteria I’ve discussed to this point, you can begin building out your workout plan. I am a big proponent of utilizing the block model. Simply put, you are focusing on one specific quality in the weight room as opposed to multiple at the same time. The three main qualities we will work on throughout the year are:
I also believe that your acceleration work should be matched to this theme. For example, if I am working on developing strength, I will also work on force development within my acceleration work. The only quality I will not pair with my strength work is peak velocity. Everyone needs to be fast at all times, regardless of the sport or position they play. That means that everyone should be training the peak velocity stimulus at all times throughout the year.Everyone should be training the peak velocity stimulus at all times throughout the year, says @bigk28. Click To Tweet
For freshman and incoming athletes, I follow this simple outline:
We will train these qualities continuously; first by establishing a base of better movement with our foundational exercises, then by building strength, then switching the focus to power/speed as we get closer to our conference tournament and NCAAs.
For upperclassmen, in order to figure out what type of training they need, you need to figure out what assessment you will be using. This is where you need to find things that are based around athletic success. That is why I focus my assessments around two main skills:
- Sprinting Assessments
- Force Velocity Profile
- 10/20 Sprint Tool by Cal Dietz
Nothing too complex here. I have my athletes complete a 30m sprint, then look at the slope of the force velocity curve. If my athlete is force-dominant, we will work on speed work for the weight room and transition to max velocity for acceleration. If my athlete is velocity dominant, we will work on strength for the weight room and force with regards to our acceleration work. If my athlete is a balance of both, we will focus on power development in the weight room and with our acceleration work.
If you don’t have the time or tools to do that, Cal Dietz has done an incredible job with the 10/20 sprint tool. Basically, have your athlete run a 20 yard/meter sprint, with a 10 meter/yard split, plug it into the calculator, and work in the zone where your athletes need the most improvement.
- Jumping Assessments
- Eccentric Utilization Ratio/Stretch Shortening Cycle Percentage
Another easy one to perform. With their hands on their hips, have your athlete do a countermovement jump squat, followed by a rest period, then a squat jump with a 3-second pause. Use the following formula:
SSC% = (CMJ – SJ)/SJ
If I have an athlete above 10%, the emphasis of their plyo work needs to be on strength; less than 10%, the emphasis needs to be on reactive plyos. And if they are in that 10% range, the athlete can do a combination of both (French contrast method works well for this group).
Once our assessments are established, it’s time to build our workout. All of my workouts use the following structure:
- Reflexive Performance Reset
- Sprint Mechanics (drills based on acceleration vs. peak velocity focus)
- Throws (acceleration only)
- Sprint-Specific Work
I like to match themes, so on my acceleration-based days we will do the following:
- MB Throw Variations
- Resisted Sprint Work (chains, hill, sleds)
- Horizontal Plyos
- Lower CNS Output Lifts (squat, deadlift, upper body press, pull, single leg movement, hamstring)
On peak velocity days we will do the following:
- Low Ground Contact Time Sprint Drills (hops, a-switches)
- Vertical Plyos
- Speed Bounds
- Fly Variations, Buildups, Drive Floats
- Olympic Lifts
I have found that the themed-based workouts work really well. I usually put peak velocity-based days in the beginning of the week because that’s when my athletes were the freshest. I do acceleration-based workouts the day after competition because the stress is lower on the athletes’ bodies and we are still able to get quality work in.I have found that the themed-based workouts work really well, says @bigk28. Click To Tweet
In-Season Work Is Paramount
There is no questioning the importance of training in-season as it relates to the development of the athlete. We want to be in the most primed state in our pursuit of competing for a championship—designing and implementing an effective in-season training plan has provided my athletes with that opportunity.
By establishing an outline prior to the year to understand the demands of the practice and game schedule, I have been able to build out a strategy to train certain developmental qualities. I establish early on what qualities matter most to the success of the sport, and how I am going to assess those qualities throughout the season—you must assess if you are trying to optimize your in-season program. I develop a structure to my workouts and educate my players on the specifics of each day—at the end of the day, athlete buy-in is the most critical factor to the program’s success. Having them understand the why of the program is paramount for continuing to improve all the way through post-season competition.
Build a plan, follow through, make adjustments where necessary, and continue to grow your mindset and there is no question you will be able to implement a successful in-season sports performance program as well.
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