Insight

Change of pace

Lockdown presented unprecedented challenges for trainers and sports scientists striving to keep players fit and mentally sharp. Simon Hart asked the experts how they did it

It was not training as they had known it. On 8 May, when the Barcelona squad returned to their Ciutat Esportiva after 56 days, each player worked with a ball on his own. There was no chance for the usual chatter with team-mates, indeed not even a shower afterwards. Instead, each player simply picked up a sealed bag containing his kit for the following day, got into his car and drove home. Yet there were no grumbles.“No, the complete opposite,” says Fran Soto, the first-team physical trainer. “They were delighted to get out again and be able to enjoy what they most like doing.”

For Lionel Messi and co it was the start of the process of preparing to play competitive football again after the game’s unprecedented pause owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. Usually the returning footballer will undergo a series of tests to measure baseline physical data and elements crucial to performance: mobility and flexibility; power; speed and agility; reaction time; aerobic capacity; and cardiovascular health and function. This time there was Covid-19 testing. And one big unknown: how had players’ bodies and minds responded to the hiatus?

When lockdown began, the immediate challenge at every club was to provide programmes and equipment for players to use at home. In the case of Barcelona, most players had “quite well-equipped gyms” according to Soto and the programme laid out for players “tried to simulate the micro-cycle of two games a week, with two peaks of workload: one during the week; the other at the end.”

Soto and his colleagues António Gomez and Edu Pons each took a group of “seven or eight players” to monitor, though they were wary of too rigorous an approach and decided to “allow them to disconnect a little”. He adds: “We even let them decide whether they wanted to do the sessions in the morning or evening, depending on their family situation. The only thing we insisted on was getting their RPE [Rating of Perceived Exertion] from the session so we could keep track of their workload.”

Over in the Netherlands, Ajax fitness trainer Alessandro Schoenmaker’s first aim was “to maintain the physical capacity that you lose very quickly: speed, power, strength”. To that end each player had a Polar heart-rate monitor watch delivered to his home and this, together with a tracking app, meant a young squad was closely monitored. “Some of them went outside, running and biking and other examples we suggested,” explains Schoenmaker. “Others stayed at home as they didn’t want contact with people outside and used Watt bikes and training material provided.”

Vosse de Boode, the club’s head of sports science and data analytics, says, “We knew when they were going for a run and how fast they ran. They had to upload it through their phone to us.” The technology was there and the data too but, De Boode adds, “Not having a goal for the players was something really hard for their motivation.”

Ajax resumed training at the end of April (above); Raheem Sterling stretches his way back into shape (top right); Peer pressure was a motivational tool at Genk (right)

At KRC Genk, the 2019 Belgian champions, peer pressure was a motivator: players used a WhatsApp group to post videos of themselves carrying out strength training. “They could see the other players who were doing it – and who wasn’t,” says one of the club’s sport scientists, Roel Tambeur.

The question of refuelling was another challenge for footballers no longer expending the usual amount of energy. At Genk, they provided weekly updates on their weight and received instruction from the club dietician on maintaining their protein intake. “Often players think when you don’t do so much sport you need to eat less but it’s important you keep eating enough protein,” Tambeur says.

For those squad members living alone, there was a meal delivery service from the club. Even at Barcelona, where some players have their own chefs, there was advice given on which foods to eat (as well as instructions to spend enough time outdoors each day to maintain their Vitamin D levels).

If that was players’ bodies, how about their minds? Joost Leenders, the Ajax psychologist, set up a “virtual locker room in a closed platform on Instagram” to counter possible feelings of isolation on the part of the Dutch club’s players. “We posted content five times per week, Monday to Friday. Each Monday we posted challenges with a lot of humour and fun involved. Every Wednesday we posted something from our nutritionist. Each Thursday we posted tactical principles.”

Ajax made the headlines in the Netherlands when some of their players took on members of Team Jumbo-Visma, the Dutch cycling outfit, in a morale-boosting virtual race on the Zwift app. On a broader note, Schoenmaker hopes the players will have gained “a little bit more self-discipline” from the lockdown experience. “They had seven weeks where they had to train by themselves, look after themselves, listen to their bodies.”

Of course, there is nothing like the real thing: the smell of the grass and its soft feel underfoot. At Barcelona, as the return loomed, players embarked on a series of mobility exercises as well as “stress tests” such as “cold showers to get the body out of this state of comfort from being at home so long”, explains Soto.

"It has taken us out of our comfort zone and the daily routine we’d established. It’s made us reflect on everything and adapt”
Fran Soto

This was “not a normal pre-season”, he confirms, and not just because of the absence of group training for the first 10 days. The example of the Bundesliga, which recorded 0.88 injuries per match in the first round of matches back (the pre-lockdown average was 0.27) highlighted the additional risk factor. Preventing the loss of muscle mass had been a chief concern among club fitness and conditioning staff andProfessor Jan Ekstrand, the UEFA Injury Studies lead expert, says, “One [hypothesis] is that it increases the injury risk, especially muscle injuries because detraining means they lose some of their fitness. It’s very difficult to keep the speed and match intensity during training and especially if it’s individual training.”

For this reason, the Ajax players returned to their training ground for three weeks, prior to a four-week summer break, even though their league campaign had been cancelled. With the 2020/21 Dutch domestic season scheduled to start in September, clubs there will rely on August friendlies to recover sharpness. When it comes to UEFA competitions, De Boode suggests that those teams already playing competitive matches will be “better prepared for not only the physical load but also the quickness of the game”.

Back at Barcelona, Soto makes a similar point. “In those countries who’ve restarted their leagues [the teams] will be in a similar condition, as they’ve been competing and will have found their competitive rhythm. Those clubs who’ve not restarted are probably in a position of disadvantage but they’ll have to find strategies to find the adequate competitive rhythm by August.”

In Barcelona’s case they returned to action in mid-June, restarting a season at the business end, with the twin incentives of competing for La Liga and the Champions League (where they have around of 16 tie with Napoli to complete).

“We’re playing [La Liga] all in a short period of time, with a very intense level of competition, with two games a week and every match like a final,” says Soto. Ideally, there will be an opportunity to “lower the level of activity” between the domestic season ending and the Champions League’s resumption in August. “I don’t imagine there’ll be too much time and it’ll be a case of keeping things ticking over,” he said speaking before Barcelona’s round of 16 second leg against Napoli was rescheduled for 7 or 8 August.

So many difficulties yet can Soto find any positives? He hopes the long break might have helped players’ bodies address the “imbalances or overloads they’ve built up with competition after competition and little recovery time in many cases” as well as allowing them “to disconnect a little”. He adds, “It has taken us out of our comfort zone and the daily routine we’d established. It’s made us reflect on everything and adapt.” That need for adaptability could be important for some time yet.  

This is an extract from an article first published in UEFA Direct

It was not training as they had known it. On 8 May, when the Barcelona squad returned to their Ciutat Esportiva after 56 days, each player worked with a ball on his own. There was no chance for the usual chatter with team-mates, indeed not even a shower afterwards. Instead, each player simply picked up a sealed bag containing his kit for the following day, got into his car and drove home. Yet there were no grumbles.“No, the complete opposite,” says Fran Soto, the first-team physical trainer. “They were delighted to get out again and be able to enjoy what they most like doing.”

For Lionel Messi and co it was the start of the process of preparing to play competitive football again after the game’s unprecedented pause owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. Usually the returning footballer will undergo a series of tests to measure baseline physical data and elements crucial to performance: mobility and flexibility; power; speed and agility; reaction time; aerobic capacity; and cardiovascular health and function. This time there was Covid-19 testing. And one big unknown: how had players’ bodies and minds responded to the hiatus?

When lockdown began, the immediate challenge at every club was to provide programmes and equipment for players to use at home. In the case of Barcelona, most players had “quite well-equipped gyms” according to Soto and the programme laid out for players “tried to simulate the micro-cycle of two games a week, with two peaks of workload: one during the week; the other at the end.”

Soto and his colleagues António Gomez and Edu Pons each took a group of “seven or eight players” to monitor, though they were wary of too rigorous an approach and decided to “allow them to disconnect a little”. He adds: “We even let them decide whether they wanted to do the sessions in the morning or evening, depending on their family situation. The only thing we insisted on was getting their RPE [Rating of Perceived Exertion] from the session so we could keep track of their workload.”

Over in the Netherlands, Ajax fitness trainer Alessandro Schoenmaker’s first aim was “to maintain the physical capacity that you lose very quickly: speed, power, strength”. To that end each player had a Polar heart-rate monitor watch delivered to his home and this, together with a tracking app, meant a young squad was closely monitored. “Some of them went outside, running and biking and other examples we suggested,” explains Schoenmaker. “Others stayed at home as they didn’t want contact with people outside and used Watt bikes and training material provided.”

Vosse de Boode, the club’s head of sports science and data analytics, says, “We knew when they were going for a run and how fast they ran. They had to upload it through their phone to us.” The technology was there and the data too but, De Boode adds, “Not having a goal for the players was something really hard for their motivation.”

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Ajax resumed training at the end of April (above); Raheem Sterling stretches his way back into shape (top right); Peer pressure was a motivational tool at Genk (right)

At KRC Genk, the 2019 Belgian champions, peer pressure was a motivator: players used a WhatsApp group to post videos of themselves carrying out strength training. “They could see the other players who were doing it – and who wasn’t,” says one of the club’s sport scientists, Roel Tambeur.

The question of refuelling was another challenge for footballers no longer expending the usual amount of energy. At Genk, they provided weekly updates on their weight and received instruction from the club dietician on maintaining their protein intake. “Often players think when you don’t do so much sport you need to eat less but it’s important you keep eating enough protein,” Tambeur says.

For those squad members living alone, there was a meal delivery service from the club. Even at Barcelona, where some players have their own chefs, there was advice given on which foods to eat (as well as instructions to spend enough time outdoors each day to maintain their Vitamin D levels).

If that was players’ bodies, how about their minds? Joost Leenders, the Ajax psychologist, set up a “virtual locker room in a closed platform on Instagram” to counter possible feelings of isolation on the part of the Dutch club’s players. “We posted content five times per week, Monday to Friday. Each Monday we posted challenges with a lot of humour and fun involved. Every Wednesday we posted something from our nutritionist. Each Thursday we posted tactical principles.”

Ajax made the headlines in the Netherlands when some of their players took on members of Team Jumbo-Visma, the Dutch cycling outfit, in a morale-boosting virtual race on the Zwift app. On a broader note, Schoenmaker hopes the players will have gained “a little bit more self-discipline” from the lockdown experience. “They had seven weeks where they had to train by themselves, look after themselves, listen to their bodies.”

Of course, there is nothing like the real thing: the smell of the grass and its soft feel underfoot. At Barcelona, as the return loomed, players embarked on a series of mobility exercises as well as “stress tests” such as “cold showers to get the body out of this state of comfort from being at home so long”, explains Soto.

"It has taken us out of our comfort zone and the daily routine we’d established. It’s made us reflect on everything and adapt”
Fran Soto

This was “not a normal pre-season”, he confirms, and not just because of the absence of group training for the first 10 days. The example of the Bundesliga, which recorded 0.88 injuries per match in the first round of matches back (the pre-lockdown average was 0.27) highlighted the additional risk factor. Preventing the loss of muscle mass had been a chief concern among club fitness and conditioning staff andProfessor Jan Ekstrand, the UEFA Injury Studies lead expert, says, “One [hypothesis] is that it increases the injury risk, especially muscle injuries because detraining means they lose some of their fitness. It’s very difficult to keep the speed and match intensity during training and especially if it’s individual training.”

For this reason, the Ajax players returned to their training ground for three weeks, prior to a four-week summer break, even though their league campaign had been cancelled. With the 2020/21 Dutch domestic season scheduled to start in September, clubs there will rely on August friendlies to recover sharpness. When it comes to UEFA competitions, De Boode suggests that those teams already playing competitive matches will be “better prepared for not only the physical load but also the quickness of the game”.

Back at Barcelona, Soto makes a similar point. “In those countries who’ve restarted their leagues [the teams] will be in a similar condition, as they’ve been competing and will have found their competitive rhythm. Those clubs who’ve not restarted are probably in a position of disadvantage but they’ll have to find strategies to find the adequate competitive rhythm by August.”

In Barcelona’s case they returned to action in mid-June, restarting a season at the business end, with the twin incentives of competing for La Liga and the Champions League (where they have around of 16 tie with Napoli to complete).

“We’re playing [La Liga] all in a short period of time, with a very intense level of competition, with two games a week and every match like a final,” says Soto. Ideally, there will be an opportunity to “lower the level of activity” between the domestic season ending and the Champions League’s resumption in August. “I don’t imagine there’ll be too much time and it’ll be a case of keeping things ticking over,” he said speaking before Barcelona’s round of 16 second leg against Napoli was rescheduled for 7 or 8 August.

So many difficulties yet can Soto find any positives? He hopes the long break might have helped players’ bodies address the “imbalances or overloads they’ve built up with competition after competition and little recovery time in many cases” as well as allowing them “to disconnect a little”. He adds, “It has taken us out of our comfort zone and the daily routine we’d established. It’s made us reflect on everything and adapt.” That need for adaptability could be important for some time yet.  

This is an extract from an article first published in UEFA Direct

It was not training as they had known it. On 8 May, when the Barcelona squad returned to their Ciutat Esportiva after 56 days, each player worked with a ball on his own. There was no chance for the usual chatter with team-mates, indeed not even a shower afterwards. Instead, each player simply picked up a sealed bag containing his kit for the following day, got into his car and drove home. Yet there were no grumbles.“No, the complete opposite,” says Fran Soto, the first-team physical trainer. “They were delighted to get out again and be able to enjoy what they most like doing.”

For Lionel Messi and co it was the start of the process of preparing to play competitive football again after the game’s unprecedented pause owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. Usually the returning footballer will undergo a series of tests to measure baseline physical data and elements crucial to performance: mobility and flexibility; power; speed and agility; reaction time; aerobic capacity; and cardiovascular health and function. This time there was Covid-19 testing. And one big unknown: how had players’ bodies and minds responded to the hiatus?

When lockdown began, the immediate challenge at every club was to provide programmes and equipment for players to use at home. In the case of Barcelona, most players had “quite well-equipped gyms” according to Soto and the programme laid out for players “tried to simulate the micro-cycle of two games a week, with two peaks of workload: one during the week; the other at the end.”

Soto and his colleagues António Gomez and Edu Pons each took a group of “seven or eight players” to monitor, though they were wary of too rigorous an approach and decided to “allow them to disconnect a little”. He adds: “We even let them decide whether they wanted to do the sessions in the morning or evening, depending on their family situation. The only thing we insisted on was getting their RPE [Rating of Perceived Exertion] from the session so we could keep track of their workload.”

Over in the Netherlands, Ajax fitness trainer Alessandro Schoenmaker’s first aim was “to maintain the physical capacity that you lose very quickly: speed, power, strength”. To that end each player had a Polar heart-rate monitor watch delivered to his home and this, together with a tracking app, meant a young squad was closely monitored. “Some of them went outside, running and biking and other examples we suggested,” explains Schoenmaker. “Others stayed at home as they didn’t want contact with people outside and used Watt bikes and training material provided.”

Vosse de Boode, the club’s head of sports science and data analytics, says, “We knew when they were going for a run and how fast they ran. They had to upload it through their phone to us.” The technology was there and the data too but, De Boode adds, “Not having a goal for the players was something really hard for their motivation.”

Ajax resumed training at the end of April (above); Raheem Sterling stretches his way back into shape (top right); Peer pressure was a motivational tool at Genk (right)

At KRC Genk, the 2019 Belgian champions, peer pressure was a motivator: players used a WhatsApp group to post videos of themselves carrying out strength training. “They could see the other players who were doing it – and who wasn’t,” says one of the club’s sport scientists, Roel Tambeur.

The question of refuelling was another challenge for footballers no longer expending the usual amount of energy. At Genk, they provided weekly updates on their weight and received instruction from the club dietician on maintaining their protein intake. “Often players think when you don’t do so much sport you need to eat less but it’s important you keep eating enough protein,” Tambeur says.

For those squad members living alone, there was a meal delivery service from the club. Even at Barcelona, where some players have their own chefs, there was advice given on which foods to eat (as well as instructions to spend enough time outdoors each day to maintain their Vitamin D levels).

If that was players’ bodies, how about their minds? Joost Leenders, the Ajax psychologist, set up a “virtual locker room in a closed platform on Instagram” to counter possible feelings of isolation on the part of the Dutch club’s players. “We posted content five times per week, Monday to Friday. Each Monday we posted challenges with a lot of humour and fun involved. Every Wednesday we posted something from our nutritionist. Each Thursday we posted tactical principles.”

Ajax made the headlines in the Netherlands when some of their players took on members of Team Jumbo-Visma, the Dutch cycling outfit, in a morale-boosting virtual race on the Zwift app. On a broader note, Schoenmaker hopes the players will have gained “a little bit more self-discipline” from the lockdown experience. “They had seven weeks where they had to train by themselves, look after themselves, listen to their bodies.”

Of course, there is nothing like the real thing: the smell of the grass and its soft feel underfoot. At Barcelona, as the return loomed, players embarked on a series of mobility exercises as well as “stress tests” such as “cold showers to get the body out of this state of comfort from being at home so long”, explains Soto.

"It has taken us out of our comfort zone and the daily routine we’d established. It’s made us reflect on everything and adapt”
Fran Soto

This was “not a normal pre-season”, he confirms, and not just because of the absence of group training for the first 10 days. The example of the Bundesliga, which recorded 0.88 injuries per match in the first round of matches back (the pre-lockdown average was 0.27) highlighted the additional risk factor. Preventing the loss of muscle mass had been a chief concern among club fitness and conditioning staff andProfessor Jan Ekstrand, the UEFA Injury Studies lead expert, says, “One [hypothesis] is that it increases the injury risk, especially muscle injuries because detraining means they lose some of their fitness. It’s very difficult to keep the speed and match intensity during training and especially if it’s individual training.”

For this reason, the Ajax players returned to their training ground for three weeks, prior to a four-week summer break, even though their league campaign had been cancelled. With the 2020/21 Dutch domestic season scheduled to start in September, clubs there will rely on August friendlies to recover sharpness. When it comes to UEFA competitions, De Boode suggests that those teams already playing competitive matches will be “better prepared for not only the physical load but also the quickness of the game”.

Back at Barcelona, Soto makes a similar point. “In those countries who’ve restarted their leagues [the teams] will be in a similar condition, as they’ve been competing and will have found their competitive rhythm. Those clubs who’ve not restarted are probably in a position of disadvantage but they’ll have to find strategies to find the adequate competitive rhythm by August.”

In Barcelona’s case they returned to action in mid-June, restarting a season at the business end, with the twin incentives of competing for La Liga and the Champions League (where they have around of 16 tie with Napoli to complete).

“We’re playing [La Liga] all in a short period of time, with a very intense level of competition, with two games a week and every match like a final,” says Soto. Ideally, there will be an opportunity to “lower the level of activity” between the domestic season ending and the Champions League’s resumption in August. “I don’t imagine there’ll be too much time and it’ll be a case of keeping things ticking over,” he said speaking before Barcelona’s round of 16 second leg against Napoli was rescheduled for 7 or 8 August.

So many difficulties yet can Soto find any positives? He hopes the long break might have helped players’ bodies address the “imbalances or overloads they’ve built up with competition after competition and little recovery time in many cases” as well as allowing them “to disconnect a little”. He adds, “It has taken us out of our comfort zone and the daily routine we’d established. It’s made us reflect on everything and adapt.” That need for adaptability could be important for some time yet.  

This is an extract from an article first published in UEFA Direct

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