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SportsLife: Is your athlete ready to tackle fall sports season?

University of St. Thomas sports performance specialist Dr. Brett Bruininks debunks the myth of "playing yourself into shape," and shares thoughts on preparation.

GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. — Summer is winding down for school-age kids, and with it will go the carefree days of sleeping in, hours on the couch playing video games and the steady menu of junk food from morning 'till night. 

On deck is a new school year, plenty of homework, and the physical and time demands of the fall sports season. If young athletes aren't already taking part in team activities they will be soon, competing for a starting position on the varsity football or cross country team, or a coveted spot on the roster of a youth soccer or hockey traveling team. 

Question is, how many of those athletes are as prepared as they should be, or at least want to be? Dr. Brett Bruininks, University of St. Thomas associate professor of health and exercise and a member of the school's Sports Science Institute, says in our high-stakes world of youth sports, those who haven't done their due diligence risk a season of disappointment.   

"The problem with summer going into fall, is a lot of players, a lot of athletes try to play themselves into shape," Bruininks explains. "And the problem there is not only do you minimize your impact right away as the season starts, or not make that team, you can also put yourself at risk for a potential injury. We saw that a little bit with the NBA, when they missed the preseason, and all of a sudden you saw these nagging injuries pop up, Kevin Durant blowing out an Achilles tendon type of thing, those are things we need to train, we also need the preseason thing."

Smart Training

Gone are the days where running a mile or two each day, with a few push-ups and sit-ups mixed in, would constitute solid preparation. Instead, Bruininks uses the term "smart training," which means utilizing activities, movements and techniques specific to a particular sport. Even in the same sport, say football, an offensive lineman and cornerback should train differently because of what they do. The lineman depends on short leg muscle explosions and a upper body extension for blocking leverage, while the D-back needs speed over a longer distance and superior agility to react to a receiver's ever-changing routes.   

Bruininks says smart training is all about specificity, encompassing a number of variables including muscles involved, muscle fiber types (aerobic and/or anaerobic), systems (e.g. cardio), types of contractions (endurance, power, strength, etc), and the intended outcome an athlete is targeting. 

"I always start with the question, what does that sport demand of you, what are the demands of that sport? The second question is, how am I going to meet those demands," Bruininks says. "You can’t predict injury in every case, but you can certainly try to minimize your risk of injury, but also improve your performance at the same time. And that starts with really good, smart training. And that training is dictated by the sport, it’s also dictated by the individual’s capabilities."

Form is also a huge part of training smart, making sure proper mechanics are used to maximize physical gains and avoid injury.

Four season breakdown

Bruininks says every athlete has four distinct seasons in their chosen sport or sports, all that require different things from a young athlete. 

Off-season: An athlete should use this time to improve overall strength and endurance. "Most activity should involve high resistance training (weights, bands) and very little sports-specific training."  

Pre-season: "A medium amount of things like resistance training (targeting strength and endurance), but also we start implementing sports specific movements… ones that are very applicable to that sport (pushing joints and muscles efficiently through specific ranges of motion)."

In-season: "Realistically, in-season should be focusing on high (levels of) sport practice but little resistance training, it’s almost at that maintenance phase" in terms of training and outside conditioning.  It's during this season that unprepared athletes face the greatest risk of injury, Bruininks says, because they are playing catch-up and demanding too much of their bodies. 

Post-season (Also known as “active rest”): Put your gear away, shelve the activity for a time and do something else. "This is the toughest one, you’ve gotta take time off, you’ve gotta get away from the sport," he implores. "The body needs to rest. It has to. You’re not going to lose all those things you’ve developed over the last two months of training by taking a day or two off."

Bruininks says the trend of young athletes specializing in one sport makes time away tougher, as they jump from their "main" season to AAA and traveling teams and skill camps. It can lead to burnout, or repetitive stress injuries from using the same muscles and joints without down time. 

"There’s a huge impact physically, emotionally, and also psychologically from playing a sport year-around," he says. "There is a lot of research that says, diversify your portfolio, not only from a physical standpoint but also a skill acquisition standpoint." 

As a former Division 1 and D-3 college hockey coach, Bruininks used to tell his players to go to a batting cage after the season. Hitting a ball is similar to shooting a puck, he says, and the break in routine is both healthy and fun. 

Fuel and hydration

This one sounds obvious and easy, but young athletes don't always carry through and it can be costly in terms of performance. Bruininks notes that late summer temps can be scorching (think 100-plus degrees on an an artificial turf field) and we often lose our appetites in that kind of heat. Still, he says it's important to refuel with food and research says athletes should eat within 30 or 35 minutes after a practice or competition to restore glycogen and glucose levels. 

What food should be used as fuel? Different sports make different demands on an athlete's body, so a bit of research and perhaps consulting with a sports nutritionist may help in terms of body recovery and achieving top performance. 

Hydrating is something that should not only be done during an activity, but pre-and-post as well. Water, Gatorade or other sports drinks regulate your body temperature (important while competing in late-summer heat), lubricate your joints and help transport nutrients to give you energy that improves performance.

As a baseline, the American Council on Exercise provides the following hydration guidelines. Individual athletes may require more or less. 

  • 17-20 ounces of water 2-3 hours prior to exercise
  • 8 ounces of water 20-30 minutes before exercise or during your warm-up
  • 7 -10 ounces of water every 10-20 minutes during exercise
  • 8 ounces of water within 30 minutes after exercise

Stretching vs. active warmup

Bruininks says there is very little evidence that stretching alone improves performance or reduces injury risk. Instead, he says, find or formulate an active warmup routine that involves movements used in your particular sport. and use stretching within that warmup to maintain or improve range of motion. 

"A lot of our younger athletes want to just get after it right away, and they forget about the importance of things like the warmup. There’s a lot of research out there that says it not only improves your performance long-term, but also can reduce injury risk and that’s one that gets neglected oftentimes."

Are you ready?

Ideally, Bruininks says young athletes have been training for months and are where they need to be heading into tryouts or competition. That way they can start tapering off - as marathon runners do before a race - reducing the intensity of workouts so the body is ready to respond when you need it. 

"That’s extremely important because the body can’t be going at 100 percent all the time," he maintains. "It will wear out, and you won’t see those performance increases that you normally would."

In terms of being ready mentally, Bruininks says most athletes are nervous, anxious about what team they might make or where they'll be on the depth chart. His simply advice? Control what you can, and come in prepared. 

"Will you know you’re ready? You’ll ask athletes if they’re ready, there’s not an athlete out there that says “I’m ready, I’m ready for anything” because it’s a dynamic world. You’ll know looking at training goals, did you reach your goals, did you come close to your goals? When you compare yourself with others on the court and compete with them, a lot of it is based in confidence but a lot of it is based in doing what you can."

"Get yourself prepared… and get ready to compete."


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