Many of SPARTA’s high school athletes are heading off to their first season of college sports in the next month. Their sport coaches expect them to come into the program fit and ready to compete for a spot on the team. Part of their evaluation of players will undoubtedly be fitness and performance tests, mostly centering on aerobic endurance. They basically want to make sure their athletes didn’t spend the summer sitting on the couch. They scare the players into training with promises of 2-mile runs and 300-yard shuttles when they get to school. First year players often worry that they won’t be as fit as the veterans, or that they are not doing enough to get ready. What these players need to realize is that if they have spent the summer competing in their sport—whether it was the Junior Olympics for volleyball, or summer baseball— a little time away from their sport will actually help them. In addition, extra work this late in the game is not going to help on those dreaded fitness tests.
Tapering for competition is a tradition in sports like swimming and track and field. A “taper” consists of training less while preparing for a competition. Athletes in team and power sports should take their lead from those “taper” sports, and use a well-timed taper to get ready for an upcoming season. With the popularity of year-round sports these days, athletes often don’t take enough time off. If you just spent your entire spring and summer preparing for and competing in major summer competitions, the last thing you need before you head off to college practices is more repetitions. Overuse injuries in sports like baseball and volleyball are more prevalent than ever (see Sparta Point 1/14/09), and trying to squeeze in extra skill or endurance training right before college 2-a-days is a great way to develop some tendonitis.
“But won’t I lose my fitness?” most athletes will ask. If you have a good base, the answer is no. In a review conducted at the US Army Research Institute, researchers revealed that adaptations to aerobic training can be retained for several months when training is maintained at a reduced level. This means that athletes can train a little less going into that 2 mile run test and actually perform better. Researchers showed that as long as intensity is maintained, athletes can train as little as a third of the time and still maintain current endurance levels!
In a review at the Department of Research and Development at the Athletic Club of Bilbao, in Spain, researchers found that a pre-competition taper actually increases muscular strength and power. In addition, most athletes had improved quality of sleep, and a reduced level of mood disturbance. These psychological benefits can be a huge advantage going into an athlete’s first college season. The increased stress of school, and a more competitive and intense sports environment can increase stress levels and leave athletes more vulnerable to infections.
Many athletes feel pressure to not take time off, and to do extra work. Instead, they should focus on quality training sessions to maintain strength and especially flexibility. Extra skill repetitions will only leave an athlete worn down when the main competition season comes around. Remembering that more work is not always better will help athletes approach upcoming sessions more mentally fresh, and they will be surprised at how their aerobic fitness will not suffer.