As high school athletes, if COVID-19 has taught you anything, it’s that there are no guarantees in life. Many of you lost seasons and important time periods to be scouted for the next level. Schools, gyms, and training facilities were shut down. With restrictions lifting and athletic seasons on the horizon, it is time for you to take your physical preparation into your own hands.
As you scroll through your social media platforms, you’ll often come across some of your favorite athletes training in the off-season. Professional athletes have access to some of the world’s best coaches, doctors, nutritionists, etc. Now ask yourself: What if you could have all of their “secrets” within your grasp for little to no cost? Sounds pretty good right? Well, you can, and this article will help set your training foundation to put you on the path toward athletic success.
Being a High School Athlete
If you are willing to carry out your own training regimen, chances are you are looking to take athletics further in your life. As a high school athlete, you are searching for whatever edge is out there to improve your performance and get looks from colleges/clubs/etc. For many of you, your current school doesn’t have an organized strength and conditioning program, let alone a coach who you can lean on for sound training advice. Some additional challenges you might come across could include:
- Lack of money to afford outside performances coaches and other expenses.
- Lifting at your school where groups are too large to meet your specific needs.
- Training in a program that uses movements or lifts that you don’t like.
- Inconvenient times for training sessions.
- Incompatibility of training programs with the demands of your sport or competition schedule.
- Lack of transportation.
- Coaches using complex terminology and Excel spreadsheets that make the whole process more confusing.
- Other commitments (another sport, a job, school, family, etc.).
What is the simplest way to combat these? I say it is to learn the basic tools necessary to develop your own program and monitor your own sport preparation. Aside from performing your sport or activity at a high level, as a high school athlete you want to:
- Have better body composition (lean muscle mass versus excess body fat).
- Be faster.
- Be stronger.
- Be more powerful.
- Sustain higher outputs for longer.
- Minimize injuries.
- Build confidence.
- Feel better.
Video 1. Chain sprints can be used as an alternative to hill sprints in a speed, power, and intensification phase.
These are all important qualities, depending on what you are training for. Here’s the kicker: Being in high school, you don’t need a Ph.D. or a certification to understand how to attain these things. All you need is some basic knowledge, some skin in the game, and consistency. This is important: Consistency is the most important training variable.
“Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is essentially your own.” – Bruce Lee
Organization of Training
Training can be confusing. Everywhere you look, everyone has a “method” or “system” that they brand to be the best. At the end of the day, your best friends in high school will be:
- Common sense.
- The task.
Take these five variables, learn the basic principles, and put in the work, and you will be just fine. Your training should have purpose if you are preparing for an athletic endeavor. Going into the weight room or on the field aimlessly will never get you the results you need. Let’s take a look at how each variable can be optimized to best serve your goals.
Common sense is the ability to see things as they are, not how you want them to be. Common sense is about boiling down what needs to be accomplished and formulating an appropriate plan to execute. For the high school athlete, training depends on many factors. Before writing a program, it might be worth developing goals and constraints first.
Step one will require you to consider several questions:
- What sport(s) do you play?
- What position(s) do you play?
- What scheme does your coach use during games?
- Why is training important to you?
- How would training help your performance/sport?
- What abilities or skills do you think would benefit you the most?
- What facility or equipment do you have access to?
- What is the time commitment you can schedule in for your training?
- How long do you have to train before the season starts?
- Where can you find credible resources?
- How will you know if you are progressing or not?
- What are your goals for training and your sport?
- If you could only pick one thing to be good at that would influence your performance, what would it be?
These aren’t all the questions, but they give you a good starting point in order to start planning out your performance “pirate map.” Write down your answers to these questions.
For just about any sport you will play, sprinting and running are essentials. In the final section of this article, we will see how different variables fit into an example training plan.
Video 2. Use cones or markers to maintain consistent distances in your hill sprints.
I’ll keep this section brief. It is imperative that you stay consistent in your training. Think “little and often over the long haul.” Training is non-negotiable if you want to 1) improve performance and 2) minimize the risk of injury. Training sessions don’t have to be 90-minute marathons. Set aside 45 minutes and get after it. You should leave the gym feeling better than when you walked in.
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” – Bruce Lee
Stress is an inevitable part of your life, both physically and mentally. Without stressors, humans would not have evolved to where we are today. Survival of the fittest, like Charles Darwin said. Research has long suggested that the body reacts to all stress the same, but recent studies are showing evidence that our bodies can differentiate between stressors. Broadly speaking:
- Distress is a form of stress that the body experiences in times of unfavorable reactions (pain, anxiety, fear, etc.).
- Eustress is a form of stress that helps our bodies become resilient and robust against stressors (exercise, heat/cold exposure, caloric restriction).
The major function of stress is to allow us to adapt to our environment. Hormesis is a process where the small stressors we encounter each day produce an adaptation from our body to overcome the stress.
Two major examples of hormesis are vaccines and strength training. Most vaccines are weakened forms of a virus. Our bodies fight and produce antibodies to beat it. Strength training stresses our muscles and connective tissues through tension and microtrauma, causing the fibers to strengthen to handle the external loads.
Your nervous system also plays a major role in the stress response. There are two main branches:
- Sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system.
- Parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system.
During exercise/competitions, you want to be mainly sympathetic in order to perform with high outputs and be prepared for chaotic sporting environments. Immediately following a game, practice, or exercise session is when you need to flip the switch into parasympathetic mode.The key is to create a training plan that takes advantage of the stress adaptation acutely but doesn’t chronically stress the body. Click To Tweet
The key is to create a training plan that takes advantage of the stress adaptation acutely but doesn’t chronically stress the body. Too much stress can just be detrimental. Remember to callus not blister.
Training is built on the notion that you gradually progress in the amount of work performed. You can do this by manipulating exercise choice, volumes, intensities, densities, rest intervals, etc. So basically, you can:
- Increase how much you do of something (volume).
- Increase the effort or intensity of something (intensity).
- Increase how often you do something (density).
- Change the rest during or between doing something (recovery).
The main goal is to provide your body with a novel stimulus that moves the needle forward. Legendary coach Dan Pfaff talks about the concept of stimulating, adapting, stabilizing, and actualizing performances. Your training will stimulate a response that your body will then have to adapt to. There will be a period of time where your body has to stabilize the adaptation. After some time, you can then solidify and use the newfound adaptation (i.e., strength, speed, etc.).
*Before you move on to the next training block or emphasis, make sure that you’ve fully adapted to the previous one.
It is important to note you will experience ebbs and flows throughout the training process. Your readiness will fluctuate daily (readiness being your body’s ability to perform work during that specific time period). Your nervous system will dictate training. Some days, 135 pounds on the bar feels light; other days, it feels like 300 pounds. Listen to your body. Some days, stepping off the gas pedal will be more beneficial.
There are effects on the body that are immediate and long term. You might get away with training super hard for a while, but the body keeps score. At some point you’ll hit a proverbial wall, and that is often the sweet spot for injuries to occur.
To properly overload, remember that mindset to callus not blister. Do enough to make the body adapt…then go home. Similar to the concept of a vaccine, you give the body a small dose of the foreign cells, and the body responds and remembers how to beat it going forward.It is important to understand what is optimal versus what you can suffer through. Challenge the body, then let it do its thing and recover. Click To Tweet
Humans are resilient. We are adaptive to many environments. Because of that, it is important to understand what is optimal versus what you can suffer through. Challenge the body, then let it do its thing and recover. You grow and improve outside of the weight room or field. Remember that.
Video 3. Escalating Density Training methods can become part of plan for progressive overload.
This goes back to commonsense training. An American football player does not train the same as a marathon runner. There are certain idiosyncrasies that each sport has that make it unique. Here are some different things we thought about before we put together our program:
- Bioenergetics (what energy systems are dominant during movements, how will the body derive energy).
- Alactic (short and intense outputs).
- Lactic (moderate and intense outputs).
- Aerobic (long and fairly easy outputs).
- Biomotor (independent abilities that enable an individual to perform a given task under specific conditions).
- Suppleness (flexibility, mobility).
- Are you training general qualities or skills?
- Are you training specific qualities or skills?
Knowing the task(s) of your sport can give you an idea of how your training should look. A general rule of thumb is to progress training slow to fast, simple to complex, and general to specific. Errors are a crucial part of learning and skill development. Don’t get frustrated if you mess up. If you get in enough quality repetitions, errors over time will happen less and less. Remember the acronym KISS. (Keep it simple, stupid.)
Putting It All Together
Programming your own training can be difficult. No program will be perfect. The most optimal training program is the one you currently aren’t doing. Find the big rocks of your program. To start out, pick your favorites. Let’s look below for an example template of how to create a training program from scratch:
My sport: Men’s lacrosse
My position: Attacking midfielder
What are the 1-2 things I want to improve on most? Sprinting speed and general fitness
How long do I have until the season starts? Eight weeks
How many days per week will I dedicate to training? Three days
Do I have access to a weight room and field? Yes
How long do I have for training sessions? 60-75 minutes
Do I have any organized team activities for lacrosse during this time period? No, all skill work is player led.
So, the answers above will set the stage for my training program. Eight weeks isn’t a long period, but consistent training will still benefit my athletic development.
Step one: Plan out training days.
- Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday each week
- 3 sessions per week x 8 weeks = 24 total sessions
Step two: Find your emphasis area(s).
- Weeks 1-2: Introduction
- Weeks 3-5: Development of fitness + acceleration (field), accumulation phase (weights)
- Weeks 6-8: Speed work (field) + intensification phase (weights)
Step three: Identify your “big rocks.”
- Sprint work
- Medicine ball throws
- Resistance training
- Aerobic training for general fitness
Step four: Program out a few weeks at a time (“High School Athlete Playbook” full video playlist of exercises available here).
Video 4. Extensive medicine ball throws serve as a bridge to the weight room in the introductory phase of training.
Video 5. Box jumps in this phase are progressed from the static box jumps in the first two weeks of the program.
Video 6. Demonstration of an eccentric front squat.
For resources regarding the above templates and training program, click on these links below:
You can modify the above template in many ways. You can play with exercise selection, set/rep schemes, and loading. Start by picking your favorite exercises in each category and go from there. For strength training, I like to keep it to the main categories of:
- A squat or single leg exercise.
- A hinge.
- A push (anything pushing away from the body either vertically or horizontally).
- A pull (anything pulling toward the body either vertically or horizontally).
During your program, every 2-3 weeks you can switch up your exercise variations. In the template, you will also see terms like “accumulation” and “intensification.” Accumulation simply means building volume in your overall training. This could be through increased sets/reps or increased loads that you use for sets/reps.
Intensification is what it sounds like. You intensify exercises by using more weight or by achieving higher velocities within each rep. To intensify, either use heavier weights that slow you down or use medium weights where you can focus on moving fast (with good form).
The later in the off-season you go, the more field work will take precedence over weight room activities. There is only so much energy available for your body each day—spend it on running-based movements. Weight room work will always follow field work. If the goal is to run faster, you need to be fresh during the speed work.There is only so much energy available for your body each day—spend it on running-based movements. Click To Tweet
Lifting weights is in the program to support your sport-specific training and to allow you to better tolerate the stress of field-based activities. If the example template is too much for you, cut it down or eliminate some things. Your goal is to leave sessions feeling better than when you started. Remember that there will be ebbs and flows every day; consistency in your actions is the key piece.
The Hidden Heroes: Lifestyle Factors
Training is only one spoke in the wheel of performance. You can’t expect to optimize results if you get poor sleep, eat garbage, and don’t replenish fluids. Sleep, nutrition, and hydration are the hidden heroes that have the potential to multiply your progress, not to mention your overall health.
One of the most potent tools in your arsenal is SLEEP! Sleep is essential to not only life but to proper functioning of our bodies. Many experts suggest that individuals should aim to get between 8 and 10 hours of sleep each night. Here are a few things that happen to your body if you don’t get adequate sleep. This information comes from sleep research expert Dr. Matthew Walker.
- Your regulation of blood glucose is profoundly impaired.
- “In my lab, the most reliable thing we see when we deprive people of sleep of any dose — anxiety goes up.”
- Men who are sleeping five hours or less a night will have a testosterone level of a man 10 years their senior.
- Your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease skyrockets.
- In one study, participants restricted to four hours of sleep for just ONE night experienced a 70% reduction in natural killer cell activity (immunity).
- When you’re sleep deprived, you have a lowered desire for social proximity and social interaction.
- Relative to a person with a full night’s sleep, the amygdala (the emotional part of the brain) is 60% more reactive under conditions of a lack of sleep.
- On top of that, sleep deprivation shuts down the prefrontal cortex’s communication with the amygdala. (The prefrontal cortex acts as a break on the gas pedal of your emotions.)
Here are some tips to help get a good night’s rest:
- Go to bed at the same time every night.
- Take a cold or warm shower before bed (warm core body temp).
- Don’t eat within two hours of bedtime.
- Turn off electronics 30-60 minutes before bedtime.
- Sleep in a cold, pitch-black room.
- Engage in diaphragmatic breathing or meditation for 5-10 minutes.
- Write down tomorrow’s to-do list to empty your mind.
- Journal or read instead of watching TV or any electronics.
On the opposite end of the sleep spectrum, we have something equally as important: wakefulness. How you spend the first hours of your day after waking up will be a major determinant in your sleep quality. Your body runs on a 24-hour clock (oversimplifying). Your light exposure early in the day sets up your body to be ready for rest in the evening.
Neuroscientist Andrew Huberman suggests getting as much sunlight as possible within the first hour of waking. On really sunny days it could be 5-10 minutes. On cloudy days it could be 15+ minutes, in a perfect world.
Nutrition is a confusing space to research. There are infinite types of diets and protocols out there. The best diet is one you can consistently adhere to. A simple rule of thumb is to eat based on your activity levels. Between practices, games, training sessions, and non-exercise calorie expenditure, you might be used to eating a certain way in order to fuel your body properly.
Building a well-rounded plate will make sure that you hit your macro- and micronutrient needs for each day. There are many great resources out there that will outline commonsense nutrition habits. The basic template is to create a plate that contains protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Try to find good sources of each.
Proteins include eggs, chicken, steak, ground beef, seafood, tuna, Greek yogurt, cheese, etc. A last resort can be whey protein shakes but attempt to eat whole foods first.
Fats include omega 3s, avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, etc.
Carbohydrates can be split into two parts: veggies and starchy carbs. Veggies can be anything; try to eat anywhere from 3-6 different veggies each day. If you can, eat all types of colors of veggies because each color offers different health benefits and nutrients. Starchy carbs include potatoes, sweet potatoes, pasta, white rice, etc.
Google “glycemic index” food charts and try to pick foods that digest at a slower rate to minimize blood sugar spikes. When I was in high school, whatever my mom cooked we ate. I understand it can be difficult, but do your best to make choices that are net positives to your goals, not net negatives.
Water is essential for human life. It accounts for 50%-70% of your body weight and is crucial for most bodily functions. By the time you feel thirsty, your body is already dehydrated; our thirst mechanism lags behind our actual level of hydration. Research shows that as little as 1% dehydration negatively affects your mood, attention, memory, and motor coordination. Some research has suggested that brain tissue fluid decreases with dehydration, thus reducing brain volume and temporarily affecting cell function.By the time you feel thirsty, your body is already dehydrated; our thirst mechanism lags behind our actual level of hydration. Click To Tweet
Other potential effects include:
- Cardiovascular system decrement, blood becomes thicker.
- Body needs to work harder (temperature issues).
- Your body’s fluid status makes a difference in the transmission of nerve impulses to all tissues.
- Muscles, joints, ligaments, and connective tissues lose fluid dynamics.
- Dehydration = decreased power outputs, increases in relative VO2 and heart rate, decreased gross efficiency, decreased speed, decreased time to exhaustion, and decreased sport-specific skills.
- Dehydration may cause a reduction in blood volume, decreased skin blood flow, decreased sweat rate, decreased heat dissipation, increased core temperature, and an increased rate of glycogen use.
The moral of the story is to replace the fluids you lose during training, practice, and competitions.
A Good Starting Point
Let this template be a starting point for you to begin taking accountability over your development. Personally, I lacked the guidance of physical preparation in my high school and college days. My filter for good information took years to mold. I also made a lot of mistakes along the way.
The best thing you can do is to educate yourself. That doesn’t mean having a Ph.D. in all things performance. It just means that you have the right direction to start your trial and error.
“If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” – Sir Isaac Newton
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