Over the last 3 months, public opinion on the topics of burnout, injury, training methods, training schedules and GAA fixtures have reached new levels of hysteria. The media have helped to generate awareness of some important questions yet to be answered in the GAA. These same questions tend to apply to most field sports, but unlike any other sport, the opportunity to play both codes; hurling and football, at elite level still exists in some counties.
Each year, inter county teams are becoming better and better prepared. The standards of our games are excelling and the limits have not been reached. Input is coming from all sources. The majority of teams have nutritional and psychological support, let alone dedicated strength and conditioning coaches and skills coaches. We are told the game is every way professional but the name. So what is the difference between professional and amateur?
I am fortunate to have worked in elite level professional sport for 5 years. At Munster Rugby in particular, every day was a learning day. It is refreshing to work with GAA athletes again at the Sports Surgery Clinic after working solely in rugby, as the mindset is completely different in a lot of respects. I often get asked the question about the difference between GAA and professional sports and you hear silly comparisons about fitness levels and strength levels but rugby and GAA are not comparable in terms of physical requirements. However, one area where the GAA can learn a lot is to do with recovery.
Through contact with various levels of athlete in the Sports Surgery Clinic, I am learning all the time about what levels of training are being done across the country. There seems to be great variety. However, a constant bugbear is the inability of the individual to process recovery strategies effectively.
What is recovery?
Recovery is one of the basic principles of training methodology and it has two primary roles: The first is monitoring or assessing the athlete’s response to training and the second involves the selection of the appropriate recovery methods to counteract residual fatigue from that training. It is a multi-level process that needs to be specific to the stress and needs to be individualised. No matter how sophisticated the training programme is; optimal performance will only be reached by balancing stress and recovery.
What is fatigue?
Fatigue is often defined as a failure to maintain a required or expected force or power output, or the inability of the total organism to maintain pre-determined exercise intensity. It can be cumulative and a result of several stressors, not just training load. Metabolic, neural, psychological and emotional types of fatigue highlight its multi-dimensional nature.
When we refer to fatigue, we naturally relate it to muscle structural damage and impairment of the nervous system function. Muscle damage is characterised by muscle soreness, stiffness, and reduced force production among other elements. Mental fatigue can lead to a lack of motivation and mental burnout. It can affect sleep patterns and sleep quality and also lead to further stress on the nervous system.
The inter-county GAA calendar runs for almost 10 months and the management of fatigue is one of the greatest challenges to the coaching team.
Are we overtraining?
Overtraining refers to an imbalance between training and recovery. The majority of teams train on-pitch twice weekly and can have one or two weights sessions with invariably a game or a third training session at a weekend. This has been the case for over thirty years and fits with conventional training methods. Those at risk include college level players playing at multiple age grades and the dual star, which at senior level is almost extinct. There is more variety across inter-county squads at the specific training level where some sessions reportedly last over two hours.
High intensity sessions, if not managed correctly can lead to accumulation of physical stress. Players can often be exposed to hard running sessions in response to poor outcome as a form of punishment yet the evidence suggests that this may be even further deleterious towards future performance.
A lack of variety in training, in particular of conditioned athletes, will also lead to a risk of overtraining effects.
Combining all these factors for a sustained period of time could result in suboptimal performance and thus highlights the required planning and structure required for elite athlete performance.
Despite the availability of elite sports science input, the general consensus is that it isn’t being effectively implemented within the GAA.
Why should we care about sleep?
Sleep plays a major role in recovery therefore it must, by association, play a major role in sporting success. But of all the physiological processes, we tend to sacrifice sleep before any other. Sleep deprivation is linked to many chronic conditions, however, even in elite sporting populations, sleep deprivation is widespread. In fact, the majority of people sleep well below the recommended time length each night. Sleep quality is poor due to ever-changing work patterns, social habits, pre-sleep habits and noise pollution causing sleep disturbance. Sleep is the biggest regenerator of the nervous system we have. Studies performed on elite basketball show that changing their sleep patterns and focusing on increasing their sleep time led to better performance across several markers. Conversely, at Olympic level, chronic sleep loss due to poor training patterns led to subsequent poor performance. When was the last time a GAA player was provided with clear strategies of how to improve sleep after an inter-county training session? Unfortunately, this is a social problem that extends far wider than the GAA community but is entirely relevant to the performance of an athlete.
Returning to the question of what is the difference between professional and amateur, it becomes clear to see how daily contact and monitoring of athletes can provide so much more information to the coaches than twice weekly as per the classic GAA model. A professional rugby player in Ireland can have up to 30 hours of contact a week with a member of the coaching staff. The use of monitoring systems where weight, sleep, energy, mood and various physical markers are recorded daily, allow the coaches to pick up on physiological trends off-pitch that can potentially prevent injury and poor performance on-pitch. In addition, the dedicated team analysing training, daily physiotherapy and massage input, GPS-specific markers, dedicated nutritionists and top level facilities, it becomes an envious environment to aspire to for a player.
However, in the real world of the GAA, the player has to get up on a Monday and go to work. This is a hugely significant factor that impedes on the individual’s ability to prepare for performance. Some players spend their working day driving a car; some work in heavy manual labour jobs and some have relatively sedentary desk jobs. So when you hear an inter-county setup is “professional”, we should bear in mind that the players are not!
So how can we help the players to perform?
Translating the sports science into practice is the number one goal. Some inter-county teams have used monitoring systems to varying levels of success over the last few years through app-based software on mobile phones. This is a step towards monitoring. But the greatest tool has to be education. If we can maximize the player’s knowledge of what the important recovery processes are and then instill the self-management principles into the squad, then a lot of good work can be done to maximize recovery and give every chance of a resultant required performance.
Here are some strategies that the research suggests are best to focus on:
- Water loss through sweat is well documented. It is recommended to drink a large volume of sodium-rich fluid after the match quickly to help restore fluid balance. Monitoring bodyweight pre- and post-session can help give more accurate feedback of fluid loss.
- Drinking beetroot juice or cherry juice is recommended to help reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, although the taste can be compromising. Flavoured milk can help to stimulate muscle repair and may also help with sleep.
- A good nutritionist can have a huge influence on an inter-county squad. Post training, eating a meal high in carbohydrate with a high-glycaemic index and protein within an hour of the match can help muscle recovery and reduce the effects of physiological stress.
- Compression garments are common in professional sport but due to cost and availability; tend to be surplus to requirement at amateur level. However, there is some evidence to suggest that wearing full-length compression from post-training session until bedtime may provide benefit.
- The use of cryotherapy has come under scrutiny in recent times but extensive research on the topic has failed to provide clear support. There is some evidence to suggest that cold-water immersion for 10-20 minutes after a game can help accelerate the recovery process. Conversely, perception of benefit plays a big role, as some players who dislike it tend to respond less favourably.
- Changing sleep habits is paramount. The average person needs approx 8 hours sleep a night. Aligning to daylight will help match the natural Circadian rhythms of our bodies. Avoiding using phones or computers before bed is advised. Avoid caffeine and stimulants after lunchtime. Have good sleep hygiene and make the bedroom a place only for rest and sleep only. The bedroom should be cool and well aired. There is no point trying to change your sleep patterns for 2 nights before a big game. This needs to be done for a much longer period to sustain the benefits. In fact, poor sleep for one or two nights can be well tolerated but best avoided. An ideal to aim for is if you are waking naturally without an alarm and not tired then you are probably getting enough sleep!
Other strategies that are commonly used such as active recovery, stretching and massage have less supportive evidence in relation to performance recovery. However, this is not to say they do not work, merely that the scientific support is lacking and this may be due to poor study design. In fact, in all aspects of sports science, there is a need for ever-improving research.
In my brief experience of professional environments, I learned three things in particular:
The best coaches were the creators of a player-led environment, where the focus was on the individual to take responsibility for his own performance.
The best leaders tended to be those who were the most proactive in recovery strategies both on and off the pitch.
Viewing sleep as a necessity rather than a luxury and encouraging sleep as part of a process improves psychological and physiological well-being more than any other marker.
Ultimately, to maintain the amateur ethos of the GAA and keep continuing our levels of excellence, then perhaps we can improve some off-field management strategies having more focus on recovery to help players maximise their on-field performance on any given Sunday.
SEE SPORTS SURGERY CLINIC