A time to heal, a time to play

Everyone talks about how there's too much cricket being played these days. But how do those who have to manage players' workloads cope?


Dale Steyn and Jacques Kallis share a light moment in the dressing room, South Africa v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Durban, 4th day, December 29, 2011
During Tests or first-class matches, there are days when a cricketer's playing schedule is light enough to squeeze in some fitness sessions © Getty Images
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To the casual observer cricket might seem a relatively passive sport, but in reality it is very physically demanding. If you're a weekend cricketer, you probably have enough time for fitness training sessions and for recovering from them before playing a match. But at the elite level the demand on players' time occurs nearly throughout the year.

Athletes in other sports have the advantage of generally being able to periodise their training year for a specific period or season of competition. The only seasonal description that can be applied to international cricket is that it occurs during summer all around the globe.

Periodised training phases can be broadly labelled as off-season, pre-season, pre-competition and competition.

Off-season basically means an extended period away from the sport as well as training; a complete time-out from the physical and mental demands of the game.

Pre-season is where a solid foundation of base fitness is developed without placing too much emphasis on skills.

Pre-competition is the time when the fitness previously developed is matched with skill development in the lead-up to the competitive phase - where all the preparation comes together and the athlete peaks for performance.

Each phase in the plan is an important precursor to the next. And within each phase there are micro-cycles; for example, in the competitive phase of the year, there are repeated patterns of preparation, tapering, competition and recovery. International cricketers spend the bulk of their year in a competitive phase, repeating a micro-cycle of preparing, playing and recovering over and over again. With fewer breaks in the calendar today, the challenge is to find time to train at the intensity required to stimulate adaptation of the body, yet allow enough fuel in the tank to be able to play and perform.

To a certain extent, the act of playing cricket is a sufficient enough stimulus to maintain current levels of fitness, but not necessarily enough to improve (unless de-conditioned to begin with). So regularly bowling 10-20 overs in a day or for 30-40 minutes in the nets will certainly maintain bowling fitness. Spending some quality time batting in the nets and out in the middle is also quite specific. As mentioned in an earlier article, the workload as a fielder can also be challenging to the body, as intensity during a match is often higher than what is seen during practice.

However, over lengthy tours or seasons, maximal fitness levels do tend to drop off unless additional training is squeezed in on a regular basis. This not only has a possible flow-on effect on performance but also on injury prevention.

The key therefore is to start the season in the best possible physical condition. Many first-class sides only allow a few weeks' rest as their off-season break before beginning to rebuild their players' base fitness levels.

To optimise a player's fitness, a trainer needs to monitor workloads, plan well and be adaptable to changes in schedules. It is typical for a trainer map out a spreadsheet with the player's known commitments of a tour/tournament/season. This includes travel, practices, matches and other functions. Outside of these dates there are a minimum number of possible training windows available for cricket-specific fitness training and recovery. Physiological adaptations to training only occur during rest, so scheduling periods for recovery is equally, if not more, important than the training.

You can also find additional time to train during a four- or five-day match, as there are always heavy and easy days for individual players. Washed-out games also open up new opportunities. Whilst heavy strength or power training requires more than 24 hours of recovery, there are no excuses for not squeezing in a functional strength- (lighter resistance), core stability or cardio session if you lose your wicket early in a four-day match - you will have plenty of time before being required to take the field.

 
 
Recent research has shown that sudden spikes in pace bowlers' loads might not necessarily produce immediate injury, but they are significantly more prone a few weeks later. A good justification for keeping track of loads
 

Every trainer has different expectations about the number of sessions a player must complete in a week. For international cricketers it would be approximately two core/balance, two functional strength, one cardio and one speed/anaerobic/power session. These are in addition to their match and practice workloads. It's generally considered best to perform skill-based practice prior to any high-intensity training and this makes sense, given that cricket is a skill-based game.

The number of sessions is just a ballpark and can certainly be added to if required. Rahul Dravid used to perform 20 minutes of cardio almost every morning on tours in order to keep his skinfold numbers in check. This session was not fatiguing and helped to jumpstart his metabolism. Similarly, Javagal Srinath would do a functional gym session the night before a Test, as he felt this helped his overall muscle tone. So sessions need to be individualised for each player accordingly.

Ideally, every session needs to be recorded in some format in order to gauge the workloads of a player over time. Software has, and is, constantly being developed to assist the support staff in this monitoring process. Development of smartphone applications has made it easier for players to log their sessions, but their compliance is still an ongoing issue. With this information, a player's individual workload can theoretically be established over any period of time. Recent research has shown that sudden spikes in pace bowlers' loads might not necessarily produce immediate injury, but they are significantly more prone a few weeks later. A good justification for keeping track of loads.

While training players during a tour provides unique challenges, the best outcomes obviously occur in an academy setting because players attend those for extended periods. At the Darren Lehmann Cricket Academy in Adelaide, we periodise the player's training programme to fit in around practice matches and skill development. The coaches and training staff have a close relationship, which allows for a planned and progressive programme over the summer. We base it on the pre-season through to the competition, and have "cycles within cycles" to prevent burnout. It's a much more structured environment than what is possible with a touring first-class or international team. And when the players return to their counties, they generally do so in their best physical condition. Their goals are clear from the start and it's usually the toughest programme that they have ever experienced. This is because we can push the intensity without having to worry as much about saving energy for their next match.

It's time international boards looked at their annual plan and established a greater balance between time for structured training as well as for rest between tours.

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