Off-season workouts: how to condition yourself ready for pre-season training
For many athletes, winter is a time to recover and rebuild. As a year of steady training draws to a close, athletes often look forward to a period of increased rest in order to recharge their mental and physical batteries. During such rest periods, the best athletes evaluate what has happened during the previous year and make plans for a better year to come; often, those plans include a pre-season regime of strength and coordination training. Greater strength, of course, tends to reduce the risk of injury during training and competition, upgrades fatigue resistance and can lead to more powerful movements during sporting activity. Improved coordination also decreases the risk of injury, enhances efficiency of movement (thus reducing the energy cost of exercise) and enhances skill in sports like soccer, where precise movements can be important.
The off-season workout described in this article is designed to greatly enhance both strength and coordination. It has a number of attractive features:
(1) Since it requires almost no special equipment (body weight provides the resistance), it can be carried out at any time, anywhere.
(2) The exercises are functional - ie similar to those used in a wide range of sporting activities - and should thus offer direct benefits to sports participants.
(3) There is a strong emphasis on balance and coordination, not just raw muscular work. Athletes using the session will become more agile, flexible, and coordinated.
(4) The entire body is challenged, with many of the exercises stressing all parts simultaneously. Use of the exercises will make you strong from the tips of your toes to the top of your head.
(5) There is an emphasis on breathing and relaxation techniques, which should boost your overall energy and confidence levels.
(6) There is a heavy focus on strengthening the 'core' of the body, notably the abdominal area and low back. An outstandingly strong core makes athletes more stable and efficient during movement and can lead to more powerful kicks during football matches, speedier serves during tennis and more explosive movement during all sports involving running.
The workout should be performed two or three times a week during December and January (or January and February or even February or March, depending on what is off-season for you); on other days, you can rest or train in your preferred sporting activities. The training session can be made progressive by increasing the number of sets and reps of the exercises and by increasing the speed of movement (without sacrificing form, of course). At least once a week, you should do some intense sport-focused work to maintain sport-specific fitness. A football player, for example, might complete the workout on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday, cross train on Tuesday and Sunday, rest on Friday and complete an intense session on the football pitch on Wednesday, including intense sprints, football-specific drills, and some endurance-type running.
Yoga-like exercises which emphasise proper breathing
You will notice that many of the exercises in the workout have a yoga-like quality, with an emphasis on coordination, flexibility, form, and proper breathing. In fact, several of the exertions have been adapted from the fine book Yoga for Dummies, written by Georg Feuerstein and Larry Payne (1999, IDG Books Worldwide). These exercises are marked with a 'Y' in the text below.
Begin the overall workout with a simple breathing exercise to get your respiratory muscles working and help you relax.
Lie on your back and put your feet up on a chair facing you. Close your eyes and rest for a few moments, getting used to the position. Once you feel relaxed, visualise a large balloon in your stomach. As you inhale, expand the imaginary balloon in all directions; as you exhale, release the air from the balloon. Once this feels comfortable, begin to make your exhalation last longer and longer ('inhale freely, exhale forever'). Repeat for a couple of minutes or so, and then allow your breathing to return to normal. Rest for a minute, enjoying the relaxed feeling you have created (Y).
Now prepare yourself more fully for exercise by jogging or cycling easily for about 10 minutes. Once you feel loose and relaxed, carry out the following routines in the order given. Balance and coordination
1. Dynamic standing forward bend (Y)
Stand tall yet relaxed, with your feet hip width apart and arms hanging by your sides, with palms facing backwards.
Inhale slowly and deeply while raising your arms forward and up overhead.
As you exhale, bend forwards slowly, and when you feel a pull in the back of your legs, bend your legs and arms slightly. Continue bending until your head is close to knee level. (if this is difficult, bend your knees a little more).
As you inhale again, roll your upper body up slowly, 'stacking' the bones of your spine on top of each other, one by one, from bottom to top, until you reach an erect posture.
Raise your arms overhead, stretching to touch an imaginary object placed well above you.
Finally, release your arms back to your sides and repeat the whole movement eight times.
2. Warrior at the wall (Y)
Facing a blank wall about three feet away, stand tall but relaxed with your feet hip width apart and arms by your sides, with palms turned inwards.
As you exhale, bend forwards from your hips and extend your arms forwards until your fingertips are touching the wall. Adjust your position so that your legs are straight and your arms and upper body absolutely parallel with the ground.
As you inhale, raise your left leg backwards until it is parallel with the ground.
Hold your left leg up for about eight breaths, return it to the floor, then repeat the entire sequence with the right leg. Repeat several times with each leg.
3. Half standing forward bends
Stand tall but relaxed, looking straight ahead, with your feet hip width apart and arms by your sides, with palms turned inwards.
As you exhale, step forwards some 36-42 inches (about the length of your leg) with your right foot. Then place your hands on the tops of your hips and make sure the front of your pelvis is 'squared'. Release your hands and let your arms hang.
As you inhale, raise your arms forwards and then straight overhead.
As you exhale again, bend forwards from the hips, 'soften up' your right knee, and let your head and arms hang down. Your head should be directly above (but a little to the left of) your right foot, and your arms should pass alongside your ears, with your hands attempting to make contact with the ground just a little in front of your toes. If your head is not very close to your right knee, flex the knee a little more.
As you inhale, 'roll up' slowly, 'stacking' the bones of your spine on each other, and then raise your arms overhead, reaching for an imaginary object well above you.
Step back with your right foot to the starting position, returning your arms to your sides.
Rest for a moment, then repeat four more times, before repeating the whole exercise with the left leg forwards.
4. Simple leg swings
Stand relaxed with good posture, supporting body weight on your left foot only, with your right leg slightly flexed at the hip and knee so it is off the ground. Your left (support) leg should be just slightly flexed at the hip, knee, and ankle, as it would be during the stance phase of running.
Begin swinging your right leg forwards and backwards, using a small 'arc' of movement at first and relatively slow speeds. As your right leg moves forwards, your left arm, which is flexed at the elbow, should also move straight ahead; as the right leg comes back, the left arm should follow. Your right, moving leg should be relatively straight.
As you continue swinging, gradually increase both the speed and amplitude of movement so that the toes of your swing leg eventually pass above eye level. If you lose your balance, simply stop the movement and begin again. Focus on relaxing your hamstrings during forward swing and your quads and hip flexors on the back swing in order to achieve greater range of motion.
Once you have completed about 20-30 swings with your right leg, change sides and repeat.
After a short break (jog or cycle easily for a minute or so), repeat the pattern with both legs.
5. High-knee poses
Stand relaxed and erect, with your feet placed either side of an imaginary midline running down through your body.
Swing your right thigh ahead and upwards until it is just above parallel with the floor, keeping the knee flexed so that the lower leg is almost at right angles to the ground. At the same time bring your left arm forwards, as you would do during a normal running stride, keeping the hip, knee and ankle of the support (left) leg slightly flexed.
Hold this 'right-thigh-up' position for five seconds, maintaining relaxed stability and balance, then return your right foot back to the ground and your left arm to a relaxed position at your side. That completes one 'pose' or rep.
Perform about 14 more pose reps with your right thigh, then switch legs for 15 further, speeding up the thigh-lift movement as you progress through each set.
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