By Tyler Lindon
The prevailing narrative coming out of sports media outlets is that training and playing too hard, too often is causing an increase in athlete injury rates. The problem is that such a premise is an exaggeration at best and just plain wrong at worst. In this post, I explore why detraining is a more likely culprit and suggest how teams can do a better job of finding a load exposure sweet spot that increases their players’ chances of staying healthy throughout the season.
The offseason is typically prime time for athletes to build their bodies. Once the competitive calendar kicks in, coaches become cautious about overloading athletes and back off of them in field sessions as well as other modes of training. Yet despite this well-intentioned intervention, players start getting hurt left and right, sometimes leading to an even further reduction in loading. Round and round we go until a significant part of the roster is on the sidelines.
Recently, this trend has been blamed on COVID-shortened seasons, which in turn created a briefer than usual break between the last game of the previous year and the first of the next. Yet I believe that the real problem is a lack of sufficient load exposure on a consistent basis and insufficient energy system development. The main issue with the latter is that the aerobic system is all too often neglected. Yes, every athlete wants to be big and powerful and fast, but it’s their heart and lungs and the blood vessels between them that make that high-torque engine go.
Fatigue = Movement Compensations = Injury
One of the main challenges on this front in baseball is that pitchers rotate between games. This is hardly surprising given the high amount of acute load that shoulders, elbows, wrists, and hips are subjected to while throwing a ball over 100 miles an hour again and again. But if a pitcher goes from maximum effort on game day to sitting around for the next three or four, it can amplify localized soreness and increase the likelihood of performance-draining fatigue in the next game. This often causes over-compensation to occur in the throwing pattern, which over time can accumulate into so-called “overuse” injuries.
This is a big factor in pitcher injuries – someone goes out on the mound, throws 70 pitches over X innings, sits for a few days, and then throws another 70 pitches. This creates a delta and huge swings in intensity that the body typically doesn’t handle well. Which is why the pitcher has to start maintaining more consistent load exposure across the course of a season. A lack of consistency and bad or nonexistent planning isn’t going to cut it anymore.
I’m not suggesting players go throw four or five hours a day when they’re not in the lineup. But rather that the coaching and performance teams deliberately and intentionally expose them to non-game-specific demands that keep their bodies ticking better between games.
Exercising at 100% and then backing off for an extended period can expose athletes to the ill effects of –detraining from an anaerobic perspective. Its like me asking you to hit a gym session harder than you ever have. The next day, you’ll probably be really sore and the second time I ask you to repeat the session with a similar level of intensity, you potentially won’t be as effective because you are so sore. Therefore, by maintaining a certain level of “fitness” you can mitigate these affects when prolonged periods of inactivity occur.
Some MLB teams are starting to address the issue of detraining by looking for correlations and causations between pitch load and heart rate. Does the latter go down or up when the former decreases or increases? And if so, why? In this way, internal and external data sources can be combined to paint a more detailed picture in the athlete management platform so the manager and their staff can make on-the-fly adjustments to rotations and pitching assignments.
In sports that require a high level of contact and collision – like rugby and American football – games are spread further apart by necessity, and there are less of them. In which case, every single day in between contests the team can work backward from the next day to develop speed, strength, power, endurance, and other physical qualities. In other sports, like soccer, there can be multiple games each week. The intensity of these varies quite widely and in an unpredictable way. If a game is hard for the full 90 minutes, a coach might decide to back off a bit in training the next day to promote recovery. But if a game isn’t very intense, the training load might need to be increased to ensure the squad is adequately exposed to enough load to prepare them properly for the next match.
Seeing Spikes and Troughs
An athlete management platform like Smartabase helps provide a 360-degree view of everything a player is doing on and off the field. With the use of wearables, we can also start to see what players are doing – or not – when they’re away from the facility, depending on what your teams can afford and implement.
The ability to collate and access everything in one spot makes workflows smoother and decisions more insightful, rather than having to bounce between laptops, tablets, or browser tabs for game stats, weight room data, and other performance and wellness information. When everything is laid out in front of you, you can see the big picture, approach things from a 30,000 ft view, and zoom into more granular details when questions arise.
With an AMS, it’s easier to keep tabs on load exposure and ensure every player is being exposed to sufficient load and energy system development to prompt positive adaptations that make success more likely on game day. If you start seeing huge peaks and troughs in intensity, density, and volume, then it’s a warning sign, just like spikes and valleys in sleep data would be cause for concern. You might not see or desire totally flat lines, but if they start to look like a seismograph that’s showing earthquake-like variations, then that could be an indication a player needs to be doing more to preserve their fitness over the course of the season.
Otherwise, detraining could lead to movement fatigue-related compensations, which will in turn compound into players getting hurt more often than they should. So while overtraining is a thing, detraining is usually the bigger issue. And remedying it begins with knowing who’s doing what, when, and to what degree. Once your team knows that, they can start to level out players’ conditioning and load exposure so that they can keep developing as the season progresses, better handle the demands of game day on their bodies, and play even better when it’s time for the postseason.