The competitive season in team sports is often divided into 3 phases with very different objectives: the pre-season (lasting 4-6 weeks), the competitive season (9-10 months) and the off-season or holiday period (4-6 weeks). While we know a lot about how players should work during the first two parts of the season, we have not put as much effort into studying the effect rest has on a player’s performance. There could be a high risk of compromising a player’s optimal future performance if their workload during this period is not appropriately planned out.
A 2016 review of the physiological effects that the off-season has on football players published in Sports Medicine1 journal warns of the dangers of total rest or a substantial reduction in training during this period. The authors examined 12 studies that had to meet 3 conditions: they must have analysed adult football players (over 18 years of age), the specific times when the physiological and performance evaluations were performed, and its effects have to be calculated appropriately. The results suggested that lack of training during holidays (from 3-8 weeks) causes:
- changes in players’ body composition – body mass and fat percentage increased by 1.9% and 1.6% respectively – while the percentage of lean body mass dropped by 5.5% compared to the competitive season.
- A loss in neuromuscular performance – the height of players’ squat jumps and counter-movement jumps were reduced by 4.4% and 4.0% respectively.
- A decrease in aerobic performance – aerobic capabilities and performance in the Yo-Yo Intermittent Recovery Test and the Yo-Yo Intermittent Endurance Test were reduced by 4.4%, 2.2% and 1.0% respectively.
In any case, it is worth pointing out a very significant finding. The negative effects resulting from the lack of training are much more visible when the rest period lasts longer than 4 weeks. Loss of performance is significantly less pronounced with breaks lasting less than 4 weeks. Also, the data should be viewed with caution since the analysed studies included both professional and semi-professional athletes.
The same study also provided some suggestions on how to reduce the negative effects resulting from the drop-off in training during the holidays:
- Workload programmes proposed during holiday periods should be characterised by clear objectives, a low number of training sessions and simple training tools to gradually meet the workload plan.
- Coaches should adopt a holistic perspective and keep in mind social aspects, the player’s family, the need for mental recovery, etc., when defining the training variables (frequency, intensity, volume) as well as the types of exercises that the players will perform during the off-season.
- A player’s history (accumulated competitive minutes, history of injuries, etc.), personality, preferences and length of the rest period are all factors that should be considered when prescribing the workload.
- The best plan is one that has been adjusted to fit the specific needs of each player.
- The proposed programme should include a minimum of two sessions per week (with 48-72 hours in between): one HIIT session and one strength and power session.
- It is recommendable to focus on reducing the risk of the most common football injuries, as well as those that could individually affect each player, depending on the player’s characteristics (keeping in mind strength imbalances or previous injuries, for example).
The off-season, besides being useful for recovering from the physiological and psychological stress of the season, can be seen as an opportunity to better prepare players for the coming year. A well-planned off-season programme can help improve the effects of training in the upcoming pre-season, and can also correct or reduce specific player issues that cannot be addressed at other times during the year due to time constraints. Ultimately, it is looking after the fitness of an individual player as opposed to that of the team.
Carlos Lago Peñas
- Silva, J.R.; Brito, J.; Akenhead, R. & Nassis, G.P. (2016). The transition period in soccer: A window of opportunity. Sports Medicine, 46: 305-313.