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Athletes’ Fitness Level Challenge After Covid-19

As sporting contests slowly restart in some parts of the world following the Covid-19 pandemic, a lot of comments have been made about the fitness levels of participants, particularly those who are competing in front of a televised audience at the highest level.  Soccer players, golfers, tennis players, to name but a few, have found themselves competing without any of the normal preparation period that they would have needed and expectedFor many of them, running has been their main way of keeping fit, often combined with some general conditioning and strength work.  Yet it is clear that in most cases the “match day” fitness that competitors need has not been at its highest until a number of competitive matches have taken place.

Cardio-vascular Training: The Foundations

It is easy to think that this means the running and conditioning work has either been of the wrong sort, or not successful.  But before making this assumption, it is important to understand the concept of “specificity” when it comes to trainingRunning is one of the best ways of developing cardio-vascular fitness, or “endurance”.  The term “cardio-vascular training” is a general description for exercise that stimulates the lungs, the heart, and the transport of oxygen from the lungs through the blood vessels to the muscles, where energy is produced.  Running will cause these to adapt and improve – lung volume increases, the ability to transport oxygen from the lungs into the blood is enhanced, and the heart becomes a more powerful pump, forcing more blood around the body with each beat.  These “central” physiological adaptions occur alongside more “local” adaptations within and around the muscles; the number of small blood vessels (capillaries) surrounding the muscles increases (improving their supply of blood and oxygen), the muscles become better at producing energy, and they adapt to working at a high intensity without producing a substance called lactic acid that causes fatigue.  When this is combined with strength and conditioning work, and high intensity speed training, we develop stronger and more injury resistant muscles that are better able to make strong powerful contractions, and manage the fatigue that is associated with the regular high intensity exercise and short periods of recovery that are common in many sports.

A blond guy, wearing a blue T-shirt and blue shorts, runs down the street. In the background, a lake and mountains.

Running while Training

When running and conditioning training work well, they will lay strong foundations upon which more specific fitness can then be developed. However, it is very hard, if not impossible, for running to replicate the twisting, turning and impacts that are an inherent part of a large number of sports.  It is also very hard to replicate the exact demands of competitive matches simply by running.  Although today’s sports scientists know what the demands of many different sports are, replicating these on the training pitch, running track or in the gym is almost impossible. 

In any normal year, the best preparation uses running and strength and conditioning work to build the foundations, before developing full competitive fitness through a series of practice matches and competitions.  But this year has been anything other than a normal one, so now we are seeing competitors in many sports taking part in their first competitive competitions with their fitness purely based on running and conditioning work.  Fortunately, our knowledge of the science that underpins the demands of these sports has meant that this preparatory work has been as good as it possibly can be, and full match fitness has generally been developed quickly and effectively.  Injury risk has been reduced and helped by practical measures such as the sensible introduction of additional replacements and rest breaks.

A girl, with her hair tied up and a black and white tank top, runs through the woods while listening to music with her phone's earphones.

Finally, it is also worth noting that in sports where running is the main form of movement – soccer, hockey, tennis and rugby for example – it is far better to use running to develop cardio-vascular fitness than other modes of exercise such as rowing, cycling and swimming.  Whilst there is nothing wrong with these, they are best used as an occasional alternative to run, rather than as a full substitution.

Author: John Brewer, Visiting Professor of Sport and Exercise Science, University of Suffolk

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