Nothing is happening: No balls are rolling, no wheels are turning and there is no movement on the tartan tracks. The measures taken to contain the corona pandemic have also brought the world of sports to a standstill. Professional leagues have been halted, mass gatherings canceled or postponed – recently even the Olympic Games 2020. Recreational athletes, too, are constricted to exercise in their own four walls or have to settle for a run in the park or cycling. Urs Granacher, Professor of Training and Movement Science at the University of Potsdam talks about the areas in which the restrictions are particularly difficult and about the types of training that are still possible – for professionals, recreational athletes and children!
The corona pandemic is tough for athletes of all kinds. Are professional athletes particularly affected, nonetheless? They can’t just stop training after all...
It would be problematic to suddenly stop training since that can have negative consequences on an athlete’s health. However, it is not unusual for the amount and intensity of their training to vary in the course of a training year. In fact, this is even encouraged in order to develop athletic performance over time. It’s what we call periodization of training. There is usually a highlight like a competition at the end of the training schedule towards which the athlete works. The training is planned in a target-oriented way on the basis of this culminating point. At the beginning of the preparation period, for instance, there will be a high amount of training. As training continues and the competition approaches, the amount of training will decrease while the intensity will increase.
At the same time, their training is a lot more elaborate. How can they continue their training?
Over a period of two to three weeks, athletes are able to maintain their fitness level despite decreasing the amount of training if they increase the intensity. Before competition highlights take place, athletes even use this strategy deliberately in order to be well rested on the day of the competition. This is what we call tapering. The amount of training is reduced by up to 50 percent over a period two weeks. During this tapering phase, high intensity workouts are carried out so as to avoid a so-called detraining. You can only do this over two or a maximum of three weeks, though. After that, athletes will have to get back in form again.
Some types of sports are likely to struggle more than others to continue their specific training: Team and contact sports, for example, but also those that depend on certain sports facilities that have been closed. What can athletes that practice these disciplines do now?
Yes. Apart from physical fitness training, the corona crisis has also been to the detriment of technique and tactical training, in particular. Challenging movement elements as far as technique is concerned can be found, above all, in technical-compositorial sports like gymnastics, for example. It is possible to maintain fitness over a certain period of time without access to the gymnasiums and the respective equipment, but the movement quality will suffer when it comes to executing highly challenging technical elements. So-called ideomotor training can help short-term. This means that complex sequences of movement are acted out mentally by letting the athlete visualize a concrete training situation. We know from neuro-physiological works that this activates neural networks in the brain that are also observable when athletes are actually executing the movement. This form of training is used, for example, during recovery periods after sports-related injuries. It can can have a supporting effect if executed over a certain period of time, but does not replace training with the respective equipment in the long run. When it comes to tactical training, it is a problem that only small groups, but not the whole team, can currently train together. That means that teams cannot train their team tactical behavior, which is of great importance, on the field. Another major aspect of team sports is tackling behavior, which is important for ball-winning, but also for avoiding injuries.
Do trainers have a plan on hand for phases where training plans have to be interrupted or is everyone starting to frantically reschedule right now?
There are different training periods within a training year, which athletes go through once, twice or even three times depending on the number of competitions or seasonal highlights. Training is planned in that way because athletic peak performance can only be achieved over a short period of time. Accordingly, the training year is divided into general and specific preparation, competition and transition periods. During the transitional period, athletes deliberately reduce their form in order to re-develop it afterwards. For these transition periods, coaches usually draw up home training plans to ensure a minimum dose of training. That means that coaches are well prepared and should not start to panic.
You are a training scientist and have advised and continue to advise organizations from various disciplines. Is research in demand in the current situation – and is it able to help?
The current situation with its contact restrictions considerably affects research in sports sciences as well, of course. In high-performance and elite sports, we frequently perform field-based experiments with groups of athletes in order to keep the time required from athletes and trainers at a minimum. This type of performance testing is currently not possible. We also do not conduct controlled lab experiments at the moment even though it would be easier to follow hygiene standards and distance regulations. However, there would always be a residual risk. A reliable and quick antibody test would be very helpful for sports research, but also for training, since it could help identify athletes that are immunized.
Right now, we can conduct research via methodical literature analysis, for instance. Previously published original papers on a specific subject area are being evaluated and the results are aggregated using meta-analysis. We are currently very active in this regard in order to bridge the time period in which we cannot gather new data. With regard to the Covid-19 situation, we are currently examining the available evidence on the effects of home-based training in different target groups in order to draw concrete conclusions for training at home.
After the postponement of the Olympic Games, all those who had been working towards them will at least no longer have to live with the agonizing uncertainty. But how can they continue their training in a sensible way?
That poses a big problem indeed, since the competition goal that I mentioned is missing for the planning and steering of the training. It is currently unclear when competitions will be able to continue. That makes it considerably more difficult to plan trainings. After the decision to postpone the Olympic Games to 2021, many top athletes have ceased their immediate preparations for the games and are now increasingly pursuing basic training again. This applies to endurance sports in particular, where the majority of the training can take place individually or outdoors and in compliance with the necessary distance regulations. This allows athletes to sensibly bridge the time until a new competition calendar is drawn up.
Gyms, athletic grounds and other training facilities are closed or inaccessible. At best, jogging and cycling on your own are still allowed. What is the best way for recreational athletes to keep fit?
Luckily, man gyms now offer online courses. In addition, there are also online offers for different target groups that are accessible to anyone for free. The German Association for Sports Medicine (DGSP) has compiled a nice overview of that offer. There really should be something for everybody.
Those who would like to be active of their own accord can also do strength training at home. 10 to 15 minutes per day already have an effect. Exercises with small equipment like swiss balls or resistance bands or simply with your own body weight can easily be performed in your living room. Planks are a good exercise to strengthen your abdominal muscles and to stabilize your whole body, for example. Regular rope skipping also provides an effective training stimulus for the cardiovascular system and skeletal muscles.
One group that is often overlooked in such debates are children. Their urge to move should be of particular importance now, of course. What can parents do with their children?
Movement is particularly important for children, both for motor and cognitive development. Without physical education classes, an important part of the weekly physical activity time is lost. Parents should therefore organize an exercise program with their children – preferably as a fixed part of their daily routine.
At the Chair of Training and Movement Science at the University of Potsdam, we have developed such a program together with our partners from the AOK Nordost health insurance company, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports of the State of Brandenburg and the Brandenburg Sports Confederation. The program is called “Henriettas bewegte Schule“(Henrietta’s school in motion). The effects of the program have been evaluated in the so-called SMaRTER study.
New exercises for children are provided daily via YouTube and presented at the end of a week in the form of a weekly overview. This program can make a small contribution towards more exercise in everyday life of children and parents in the corona crisis.