Getting out of the quarantine: A practical guide for a safe return to action
In many countries governments have decided to easy some of the restrictions that were imposed on the population because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so finally athletes will gradually be allowed to train outside in small groups or practice indoors with the appropriate safety measures (number of athletes-coaches, distancing etc.). However, getting back into action must be done with caution, as most athletes have been pretty inactive for more than a month (you can find more details about de-training effects here). Training loads must be carefully monitored and exercise must follow strict progression, as an abrupt increase in training intensity and volume might cause injuries and unnecessary setbacks. To help athletes and coaches return to their sport as fast and as safe as possible, I will provide some basic guidelines regarding programming and exercise progressions
I must stress that the information presented in this article are just guidelines meant to help athletes and coaches build their programs and are not to be used as a one-program-fits-all solution. Each athlete had different levels of activity during the lock-down, was in different shape when it all started and has different needs now. Therefore, all programs must be adjusted according to individual needs. So, please use this information with that in mind.
The first point I would like to make is that the process of getting back into playing shape after months of reduced activity will take time. So, coaches and especially athletes must be patient. Training cannot resume from the point it last got interrupted, as the body lost the previous training induced adaptations and it will take time to build them back up. The key word during this period is progression. Taking as a given fact that most athletes are in a de-trained state, the first week must serve as an “introductory” period/phase, during which athletes will be gradually loaded and all physiological system will begin adapting to stress. Depending on each athlete’s condition, this period can be prolonged, but never cut short. In the following weeks intensity and volume of training will be raised, until athletes are able to play the game in full speed for any duration necessary.
For practical purposes, I will present a monthly training plan. After that, training should be organized based on individual needs and competition obligations, as some athletes will be required to continue playing official games, while others will face a long off-season period, especially this year that there are no national team games. As you will see in the tables below, I have arranged different training blocks (e.g. strength training, conditioning, basketball etc.) each day. Ideally, basketball workouts should be done in the afternoon and the rest of the prescribed training in the morning. However, I am fully aware that not all athletes or teams have the luxury to train twice per day. In this case, I would organize the daily schedule as follows:
- Weight training before the basketball session
- Agility/Speed/Jumps after warm-up before the basketball session
- Conditioning after the basketball session
The goal during this week or phase is to introduce the athletes back to their daily routines and to adapt to the increased physical stress. The main concern in this, as in every re-conditioning process (pre-season training or return to play after an injury), is to maintain the integrity of the neuromuscular system. Avoiding injury should be as high in the list as getting back into shape. Nothing can be more frustrating and will set back an athlete than an injury right at the time that he/she was building athleticism back up. The body must be allowed to adapt to the new stimuli to minimize injury risk. Therefore, intensity and volume should be kept low, whether it is conditioning, speed, agility and strength training.
The weekly schedule must be set up in a way that provides athletes time to recover for the previous sessions(s). This means that we must plan for “hard” and “easy” days and also vary the training content. Because of the low intensity and volume, in this phase we can plan for everyday workouts and allow one full day for rest (Table 1). In the example below, Monday and Tuesday can be “harder” days, while Wednesday can be used as an “easier” training day, with basketball focusing only in light shooting drills. Thursday, Friday can be “harder days” and Saturday an easier one. Sunday will be a complete day off.
Сonditioning: The focus during this phase is to gradually build up the body’s energy systems focusing first on “aerobic” metabolism (although in my training system I use several metabolic zones, for simplicity purposes I will use the old aerobic/anaerobic concepts). This is one of the few occasions that I would probably recommend continuous running to a power athlete. Considering that most players haven’t ran any significant distance for more than a month, I would add this type of work to get some volume running and also work on the aerobic system with reduced neuromusclular stress.
Don’t confuse aerobic physiological adaptations with the method of training (continuous running). Central and peripheral aerobic adaptations include increase in heart size, left ventricle strength, increase in plasma volume, mitochondria density and capillarization. This can be achieved with various methods of training and not only continuous running!
Low intensity intervals (LII) are also a good (and preffered) solution for building up conditioning. When designing low intensity intervals, I use two different approaches. The first is to employ longer work times and short rest periods and the second is to use shorter times and faster tempo (but not maximal) with more repetitions. Both methods can be used throughout the week depending on the athlete’s needs, but the longer runs are more suitable for the beginning of this phase due to the reduced imposed stress on the body. Here are some examples of both approaches:
- 4 x 5 mins continuous running or
- 6 x 1 min with 40″ rest or
- 8 x 30″ with 30″ rest (submax intensity)
Keep in mind that this is not the only conditioning stimulus that the athlete gets. In the sample schedule that I provided above (Table 1) you can see that every day I have planned an individual (for the time being) basketball workout. The load of this session must also be taken under consideration and added to the total daily stress and stimulus.
Strength training must also resume slowly. In most cases, athletes have had very limited access to equipment, especially to bars, platforms and heavy weights. So this first week, training should aim to familiarize the athletes back to the basic exercises (squats, lunges, pulls etc.) and allow the muscular system to re-adapt to the new stress. At this phase, I prefer to use dumbbells /kettlebells and lighter weights (even just body weight) to minimize soreness, while at same time focusing on exercise technique and joint control. I would also reintroduce Olympic style lifting and their derivatives using lighter weights (e.g. dumbbells or just the bar) to set the base for future more intense exercise. Intensity (kilos/lbs) and volume (reps x sets) of training should be moderate (Table 2). Of course, as always, weights and exercises should be selected based on the athlete’s individual needs.
Here are some examples of exercises to use during this period:
- Body weight, med ball, like dumbbell Squats or Goblet Squats
- DB Hang Pulls, Kettlebell Dead Lifts
- DB/KB partial lunges in all directions
- Hip extensions – Body weight/Swiss Ball (single leg bridge, Swiss Ball Bridge & Curl etc)
- DB/KB RDL’s
- DB/KB Vertical & horizontal presses (Hammer curl to press, Alternate DB Chest Press etc)
- Suspension and cable pulls (Susp. pull ups, single arm cable row etc)
Agility and speed work should also be planned in the weekly schedule, but with reduced intensity. I know that doing agility, COD (change of direction) and speed training with sub-maximal effort is counter intuitive. But the body is not ready sustain maximal intensity work yet. The focus should instead be in rehearsing basic mechanics (e.g. acceleration technique), running short distances (e.g. 10m) faster and getting the nerumuscular system ready for the next phase. This is a line of thinking that I also follow during rehab, post-rehab and re-conditioning periods. This type of exercises can be programed after warm up, before the basketball workouts. Jumps also fall in this category and can be performed either as part of the stregth/power session or on the court. Again, low impact jumps must be selected (e.g. squat jumps, counter movement jumps, lateral bounds, jumps on boxes etc.) to minimize stress.
Examples of drills:
- A, B Skips etc.
- Shuffles, Carrioca, etc
- Box drills
- Speed light – low intensity drills (e.g. BlazePod)
- Low intensity jumps, bounds, hops, single – two leg, all planes of motion
Based on individual needs and competition schedule, this phase might be prolonged by one more week to allow for a smoother adaptation to loading. The decision is up to the coach/athlete however. I always recommend to take more time to adapt, if time is available.
Basketball workouts for the time being can only be individuals due to safety considerations. All players must start with simple drills and avoid maximal efforts on the court. I know it can be tempting to go all out from the first day, but caution is advised. Also, the duration of the practice must me moderate (e.g. 45 mins).
WEEKS 2 – 3
During the second and third weeks, intensity and volume are gradually increased, as athletes will be able to tolerate more load. The focus now shifts to
The weekly schedule (Table 3) can be built in various ways. It can be intensive, with four weight training and three conditioning workouts per week or a little lighter, with three weight training session and same number of conditioning. Again, this depends on the condition of the athlete. In any case, two low intensity or complete rest days must be planned during the week as well. For example, Wednesday can be a “light” day and Sunday a complete day off.
Conditioning should progress from the lighter “aerobic” to more intensive, “anaerobic” work (Table 4). As a training method, I prefer to use intervals on the court, with the use of a ball in many drills. By manipulating work/rest ratios and intensity, this is the best method to develop both aerobic and anaerobic adaptations, while at the same time staying on the court and using basketball drills. In this Phase 2, I usually progress into shorter/faster work intervals and while I reduce rest periods. Here are some examples:
- 30 – 40″ work, 30″ – 1 min rest x 6-8 reps or
- 15 – 20″ work, 20″ – 30″ – 40″ rest x 8 – 10 reps
While on-court interval training is the preferred method for energy system development, it comes with a downside. When performed on the court, it can be stressful for the neuromusclular system and the joints because of the continuous accelerations, deceleration and changes of direction. Drill selection and design (e.g. reduce changes of direction) becomes an important part of planning so as reduce the chances of injury and minimize soreness. The volume of training is still kept moderate, because, like I already mentioned, there will be another strong conditioning stimulus during basketball workouts.
Strength follows the same pattern as the rest of training. Intensity is increased by using heavier weights and volume is also increased by adding more exercises and sets. In this phase, we can heavier lifts and more complex exerices. For example:
- DB Hang Pull, DB One Arm Snatch
- Dead Lifts, Squat
- Split Squats, Bulgarian Split Squats
Speed and agility exercises are executed at full speed, especially in week 3. We can use complex drills that involve decision making, the use of the ball as well as opponents. This type of training can be programed either after warm up before the basketball practice or as part of the basketball drills (e.g. combination of basketball and agility drills). Regarding jumps, the volume still remains moderate, even low, because there will be a lot of jumping during basketball. However, they can be added as part of the strength/power workout, right after the warm up. Exercises like drop jumps, hops etc., are appropriate during this phase.
This can be a tapering week if the athlete must participate in an official competition, as many leagues have expresses their wish to continue and finish the season. If there is no official games however, this week can follow the same philosophy as weeks 3 and 4, that is, keep working with a higher intensity and volume. However, Week 5 must be an unloading week, as the first meso-cycle comes to end (4 weeks of work).
During tapering, as a general rule, intensity is kept high but training volume is reduced (Table 5). Conditioning should mostly be built through basketball, although some conditioning drills can still be added during the practice. Strength training can be programed for two times per week, but as mentioned above, intensity must be kept high. Speed work and jump training should be minimized and only one or two “agility” days can be planned (Table 6). The best way to incorporate this type of drills is after the warm up at the basketball practice. The main focus of this week is to rest the players and allow to increase their performance through rest and reduce loading.
As a closing thought I will repeat what I wrote in the beginning of the article: Don’t be in a rush to get back in top shape as this will jeopardize health. Follow a conservative progression, carefully monitor the athletes’ condition and use common sense. Use these guidelines by adopting it to your athlete’s (or if you are an athlete to your own) needs and ask advice from a certified strength & conditioning professional if you have any questions.
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