A competition comeback will require care to protect athletes from potential strains, writes physiotherapist and England Athletics medical lead Stuart Butler
The Covid-19 pandemic has decreased opportunities in track and field and has denied athletes the chance to showcase their hard work and commitment. However, when the return to competition does come, great care will be needed to protect athletes from potential strains.
Athletes have lost opportunities on the local, regional, national and international stage and many athletes and coaches may feel disheartened by the enforced, albeit slightly easing, lockdown at the time of writing.
Okay, lockdown may have allowed athletes to do some remedial work and specific strength and conditioning, or simply provided an opportunity for tired bodies to rest. Now, with the potential return to training and competition (Government guidance permitting) athletes are faced with the question of how they “get into shape” or “get sharp” when they have had little access to tracks and specific training.
Coaches will have been doing their jobs “virtually” but there’s no counting for face-to-face coaching and “seeing” what the athlete is doing and how they are performing.
Many will have prescribed slightly less specific training than would normally be the case at this time of the year. Normally for sprinters, jumpers and hurdlers, for example, quality would be in the ascendancy, as would the execution of technique at maximum velocity. However, the lockdown has led to many coaches having to give their athletes slightly less specific workouts.
Some have even returned to more general “build-up” style training phases – where volume and more general preparatory exercises are higher on the training agenda than they normally would be. So, now with a still athlete-restricted-lockdown in place and a potential date for a British Championships in early August, there’s not really a lot of time to prepare.
Let’s be clear, this is going to be a very limited track season, if any. I would therefore suggest this should be seen as a development opportunity and not as a race to compete. It’s a reverse engineering problem. So, athletes and coaches should consider, “What have you got to do to achieve the decided goals?” And, “What are the steps needed to get there?”
Then, I think there is a need to be critical and to ask, is there enough time? The risk of injury is higher (as we’ll discuss later) upon a return to sprinting, for example, due to the increased demands and volume of training which athletes will be able to do.
However, the rewards are relatively low for the majority with few true championship opportunities, so this could be the year to be cautious and think of long-term athletic development.
Review the reality
What has the athlete been able to do? What have they told you they’ve done versus what have they actually done? This should help to frame the situation and give all parties involved an understanding of where the athlete is presently at.
You should also consider how psychologically ready the athlete is. We may all have been affected differently by the enforced isolation of the pandemic. Some athletes may be more ready to interact than others, some may just enjoy the pure social aspect of training with others (while appropriately socially distancing) to enhance their own well-being.
Now, therefore, could well be the time to look very holistically at the athlete and to let them do things they want to – to enhance their transition from isolation and therefore not worry about performance.
Where have they been training?
For middle and longer distance athletes, their training may have been less disrupted, though lack of competition and a return to the track should still be carefully considered.
For speed, throws and jumps athletes, however, a lack of exposure to track and field facilities will have had more of an impact.
Having to train on a variety of surfaces may present different pros and cons. Grass, for example, is rarely as smooth as a track but can be softer which sounds good, however, it also means that the athlete needs to generate more force through the surface and with an increased ground contact time. Some data has suggested that speeds reached on grass are at least 10% slower in international sprinters. It may also be inclined or declined or bumpy and this again is very different from what the athlete will be used to.
Treadmills are great if you have access as they’re incredibly consistent but again these tend to be softer than Tarmac or track surfaces, and alas not all treadmills are made equal. Research indicates that treadmills have different characteristics, plus, the dynamics of running on a treadmill are different to running on a surface that doesn’t move.
As noted, road surfaces are very hard with next to no give, so sprinters will get plenty back from the surface in terms of force generation and very little energy loss. However, this is without considering that the athlete will inevitably be wearing trainers which offer more cushioning than spikes.
Specificity of training
However, perhaps the most important question we should consider is: how has an athlete’s training during lockdown mirrored what would have been expected of them under normal training circumstances? If your sprinters have only been doing some 20min “jogs”, then how much does that replicate what they will need for the challenges ahead?
The skill and the art of coaching has to be to help the athlete regain specific event fitness, however, the truncated season may not allow enough time.
Fig 1 (below) looks at muscle tendon length, muscle force and muscle tendon work (eccentric load). Note that muscle length remains constant whilst running at greater than 80% of max velocity and force increases linearly. While that force increases 30% from 80% to 100% speed, the muscle tendon work (eccentric load) increases 50%.
We know that eccentric hamstring weakness is associated with hamstring injury and a rapid increase in high speed running is also associated with injury. If we estimate that an athlete hasn’t run faster than 90% of top speed, we know that the hamstrings have only been exposed to approximately 80% of eccentric force so if they are reintroduced to max velocity they need progressive exposure to these velocities.
As well as contending with the demands of high speed running in the jumps, we also need to be aware of increased tendon loading. We know that resistance and plyometric training programmes increase muscle strength, but only plyometric training increases the rate of force development and the speed of stretch shortening cycles significantly for athletic performance.
It should be noted that developing these qualities can be dependent on the athlete’s training age from a more general perspective but also in terms of lockdown and what they have been able to do. Limited or no access to weights equipment can have a major impact on objectives. We know tendons are slower to adapt than muscles and they generally respond to heavy weights to aid their adaptation. My concern would be a too sudden increase in load and with it the likelihood of increased Achilles or knee tendon pain.
The post lockdown loading needs to be progressive and based on the athlete’s present fitness state. Tendons always need 48-72 hours to recover and often don’t show signs of discomfort until this time after exercise. This doesn’t mean that athletes shouldn’t train everyday (if this is normal for the athlete) but it does mean there needs to be a balance in the training programme between high load and lower load days. As always there’s the massive technical component of the individual event to consider and it will be the coach’s judgement ultimately as to how this can be progressed.
A return to high speed running, jumping and hurdling should include an honest appraisal of where you or your athlete is at present and account for what they have been able to do with the resources available during lockdown.
Coach and athlete must agree the objectives and place these against the context of this season – whatever form it takes. Coaches should provide athletes with outcomes/data to assess where the athlete is presently at and use this to guide them to where they need to get to.
Use the data rather than time to decide when an athlete is ready. So, run progressively faster, aiming to build toward top speed in small increments allowing for suitable recovery. Practice the skill of running fast over and over and build a long-term athletic development plan which looks at each athlete holistically so as to prepare him or her for what lies ahead whilst preserving their well-being.
» Article by physiotherapist and England Athletics medical lead Stuart Butler, edited by John Shepherd