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Maintaining Strength During a Competitive Season

 

One challenge during a competitive season is maintaining strength gains.  Like many things, it’s a delicate balance between too much and not enough.  Do too much and you fail to exploit the benefits of a taper; do too little and you potentially lose the benefits of all the work you’ve done and perhaps set yourself too far back to begin the next training cycle. 

Common approaches are at the extremes: make minimal changes to your mid-season program or drop all strength training when the taper hits.  In addition to potential strength losses when cutting workload, the body may also experience a shock from any abrupt change, even if the change is made to create more opportunities for rest or to give the athlete fresh legs during a taper.  What we’re really looking for is a way to occupy the sensible middle ground. 

Though blending strength during a taper is as much art as science, there is some literature for reference.  Rønnestad (2010) studied a group of well-trained cyclists comparing two protocols: endurance training supplemented by twice per week heavy strength sessions for twelve weeks followed by once per week heavy strength training during a 13 week competition period.  The control group performed only endurance training. 

At 13 weeks into the competition period, strength had preserved its increases in muscle cross sectional area and strength from the preparatory period. From the beginning of the preparatory period to 13 weeks into the competition period, they increased peak power output in the Wingate test, power output at 2 mmol of blood lactate (steady state tempo riding), maximal aerobic power output, and mean power output in the 40-min all-out trial. The control group saw increases in maximal aerobic power output and time trial performance, but in a smaller proportion than the strength group.  Other metrics were unchanged in the control group. 

Ideally this protocol would have tested a maintenance program compared to a continuation of the original program.  Another beneficial experimental would have compared an ongoing strength program .  Nonetheless, we can still conclude that a one day per week maintenance program can be beneficial to maintain strength and increase cycling performance.  Strength need not be high volume to provide lasting benefits into a season.

A more recent study from the same team Rønnestad (2011) addressed the similar issue using professional soccer players as subjects.  Both experimental groups performed an identical strength program twice per week during the pre-season.  In-season, one group strength trained once per week, while the other group strength trained once every other week.  “During the first 12 weeks of the in-season, the initial gain in strength and 40-m sprint performance was maintained in the [once per week group], whereas both strength and sprint performance were reduced in [the group that trained once every second week]. There was no statistical significant change in jump height in any of the 2 groups during the first 12 weeks of the in-season.”

Conclusion

It is clear that minimalist strength training can indeed maintain gains made from the early season or offseason.  In both of these studies, the experimental groups trained ONCE per week yet maintained their strength.  I wouldn’t suggest once per week training as a long term protocol, but since fitting everything in is a challenge during a season, it should provide solace that strength should not erode on a minimalist in-season program (in well trained athletes…might be a different matter for beginners). 

Also note that the literature only addresses “output” related gains for strength.  Supplementary strength training is not always measured by strength but also be improvements in movement quality and biomechanics. 

References

Rønnestad BR, Hansen EA, Raastad T.  In-season strength maintenance training increases well-trained cyclists' performance.  Eur J Appl Physiol. 2010 Dec;110(6):1269-82. doi: 10.1007/s00421-010-1622-4. Epub 2010 Aug 27.

Rønnestad BR, Nymark BS, Raastad T.  Effects of in-season strength maintenance training frequency in professional soccer players.  J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Oct;25(10):2653-60. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31822dcd96.

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