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Providing Sport-Specific Training to Athletes

Training an athlete requires knowledge of the sport, the competitive season and injury prevention.

"She thinks I am a great personal trainer because she has lost 30 pounds since she started working with me last year. When she found out I played soccer in high school, she asked me to work with her daughter, a 16-year-old hoping to make her high school's varsity soccer team next fall. I told her I would be glad to work with her daughter, but I think I'd better brush up on sports training. I mean, it takes a lot more than aerobic endurance and core strength to be a good soccer player. I should probably think about injury prevention, too. This could get interesting." Many personal trainers enjoy working with athletes to help them achieve their sports conditioning goals. But, working with athletes is different from working with clients who have more general weight-loss or health/fitness goals. To successfully train athletes, you must understand the demands of their sport, and design your training program to meet the specific training goals of each athlete. Following are some of the factors to consider as you design individualized training programs for athletes.

Sport-specific skills and metabolic demands

Before you agree to work with athletes, especially those at a fairly elite level, be sure you have a good understanding of their sport. Read up on the training literature for that sport, and be familiar with the physical requirements for peak performance. If your clients need training that is beyond your teaching ability, refer them to their coach, or to a good sports camp. Remember the principle of training specificity. The body responds to exercise training by adapting to the specific challenges placed on it. Specificity refers to muscle groups, muscle fiber types and energy systems. Some clients new to sport training underestimate the complexity of specificity. For example, they may think that since they need strong legs to run, strengthening their legs should improve their running. Of course, you know this is not true! Strength training will improve the short-term energy systems (the muscle phosphagens ATP and phosphocreatine, and anaerobic glycolysis) and fast-twitch muscle fibers, but won't help endurance (aerobic energy production), produced by the slow-twitch muscle fibers. How do you know which energy systems a certain sport uses? Watch the players. What matters is not the length of the game, but what an individual player does during the game. Most games need some aerobic endurance, so players can participate fully in long practices and play well in tournament situations. But many sports need more than endurance conditioning. What do athletes actually do during contests? Energy system use will vary with position as well as sport. If you see a lot of bursts of power and sprinting, as in most ball sports such as soccer and basketball, you will know you must train the client's short-term energy systems with high-intensity interval training. While an aerobic base is important, as you approach the competitive season, too much endurance training can detract from the development of power and strength.

Timing your conditioning program

Athletes' conditioning programs must be designed so that they peak physically when contests matter the most. One-sport athletes on an academic calendar may spend quite a bit of the off-season on general conditioning, moving into more sport-specific conditioning as the season for their sport approaches. When you work with athletes, be sure you have a clear picture of how the conditioning program you are designing fits into the athlete's total training picture. Are you several months away from important competition? Then you can spend time on flexibility, core work, aerobic conditioning and whatever else makes sense for that athlete. Weight loss may be an off-season conditioning goal, but should generally be avoided during the competitive season, when optimal refueling is vital for glycogen resynthesis. If competition is drawing near, training volume may decline as workouts become more intense and more sport-specific. Be sure to design an effective tapering period if competitions are occurring during your work with athletes.

Injury prevention

Injury prevention is always in season. Fortunately, training for injury prevention can also enhance an athlete's peak performance. Training that includes plyometric and other explosive training work can simultaneously improve power and strengthen joints, making them less vulnerable to injury. Teach your athletic clients the importance of rest and recovery for injury prevention and peak performance. Monitor clients for signs of overtraining, and modify their conditioning programs accordingly.
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