What Too Many Athletes Get Wrong About In-Season Training (And How to Fix It)

Athletes need to find the perfect balance to get the most from their in-season training.

For quite some time now, I've noticed a couple of disturbing trends developing in regards to in-season strength and conditioning.

Most athletes are all about the offseason "grind" and eagerly participate in grueling workout programs in their efforts to improve speed, strength and power, but as soon as the competitive season starts, many allow their conditioning efforts to fall by the wayside.

Whether due to time constraints or the fear of accumulating too much soreness and fatigue and the potentially negative impact they can have on performance, some athletes and coaches steer clear of any type of in-season training. This group typically (and erroneously) maintains that practicing and playing their chosen sport presents enough of a conditioning stimulus to stay in "game shape."

On the other hand, there's also a growing faction of training programs that push athletes just as hard once the games start to count as they do during offseason workouts! This approach also makes little sense, as it fails to account for the wear and tear being placed on athletes' bodies during the competitive season. Not to mention the fact that if intense enough, said training can also hamper their ability to recover properly; essentially defeating the purpose of having an in-season conditioning program in the first place.

So what's the answer? As with most things in life, the solution lies somewhere in the middle.

Although athletes should of course engage in some type of training during the competitive season, the intensity and volume of that program needs to be carefully managed. Not only that, but taking into account things like the movement patterns, energy system demands and injury risks of a given sport can allow athletes and their coaches to implement innovative conditioning programs that will go a long way toward keeping them fit and injury free all season long.

Below I've outlined in-season conditioning programs for two sports—hockey and swimming. As you will see, the two approaches are somewhat different and take a number of factors into consideration. Please be advised however, that the type of sport-specific emphasis employed below is best suited to older athletes with at least some degree of training experience.

Athletes who are newer to training should also engage in some form of in-season conditioning, but are best off sticking with a more basic approach to build a solid foundation of movement and strength.

Keep in mind that these are just two examples from two different sports. The message here is that athletes of all types stand to benefit from a well-planned, properly supervised in-season conditioning program. Care just needs to be taken to ensure that athletes are doing the types of drills and working at the appropriate intensities to augment recovery and best complement the needs of their given sport.

Hockey In-Season Plan

Given all of the time players spend skating and shooting the puck, heavy emphasis should be placed on maintaining hip mobility and pillar core strength to help ease strain on the lower back.

Though stationary biking has long been a popular means of conditioning for hockey players throughout both the competitive season and the offseason, concerns exist as to the shortened position it places the hip flexors in. Since tight hip flexors—and the resulting exaggerated anterior pelvic tilt they contribute to—are already a common problem among hockey players, alternative means of maintaining conditioning levels are sorely needed.

Since most forms of repetitive energy system work (cycling, running, stair climbing etc.) require a lot of hip flexor involvement, I've long been an advocate of in-season conditioning circuits for the players that I train.

These are particularly effective on two levels. One, by blending strength, mobility and power work into a circuit format, they not only enable players to maintain their level of fitness, but they're able to do so while engaging in variety of movement patterns that are often different from those they repeatedly use on the ice.

Two, the non-stop pace creates a conditioning effect, incorporating plyometric exercises (for power maintenance) and also interspersing mobility drills and core training as active rest.

This approach enables them to keep their heart rate elevated for the entire workout, thus incorporating some energy system maintenance work in an incredibly time-efficient manner.

A sample circuit (which I typically prescribe to de done twice per week) would look something like this:

*Note: players would first go through a full dynamic warm-up.

Workout A: 2-3 circuits, rest 90 seconds after each

  • Unilateral Box Jump x 5-6 per leg
  • Inverted Row x 8-10
  • 3-Way Skaters Pallof Press x 4 rounds
  • Barbell Hip Bridge x 6-8
  • 1/2-Kneeling Landmine Press x 6-8 per side
  • Medicine Ball Slam x 6-8
  • DB Lateral Lunge to Balance x 5-6 per side
  • Spiderman Push-Up x 8-10
  • Side Plank with Abduction x 8-10 per side

Workout B: 2-3 circuits, rest 90 seconds after each

  • Lateral Skater's Bound x 8-10
  • Incline DB Press x 4-6
  • Explosive Sled Squat and Row x 6-8
  • Landmine Anti Rotations x 8-10
  • DB Unilateral RDL x 6-8 per side
  • Cable Face Pulls x 8-10
  • Medicine Ball Dying Bugs x 10-12
  • Crossover Sled Drag x 20-30 yards (each way)
  • KB Turkish Get-Ups x 5 per side

Swimming In-Season Plan

The big challenge in developing an in-season conditioning program for swimming is that the competitive season lasts almost the entire year. Unlike most other athletes who typically get at least two to three months off from competition, club level swimmers are lucky if they see half of that.

Sure, there are certain points in the competitive year that matter more than others, which enables swimmers and their coaches to manipulate dryland training so they peak at specific times. That said, however, the amount of time they can devote to making wholesale gains in strength and power pales in comparison to that of other sports.

Throw in a prevalence toward overuse—courtesy of all that practice yardage in the pool—and you can see how implementing an effective in-season dryland program can be a bit daunting. All the more reason why training plans need to be well thought out and strategically executed.

Emphasis needs to be placed on maintaining core strength, specifically in terms of being able to provide a stable base for movement of the arms and legs. Additionally, hip and especially shoulder mobility should be a primary focus to help offset the heavy volume of stroking and kicking.

There also needs to be some degree of ground-based strengthening, with moderate to heavy resistances to not only help maintain strength, but also improve bone density. Because swimmers spend so much time with their bodies essentially being suspended by the water, they're more prone to developing osteoporosis than land based athletes.

Taking all of this into consideration, here's what a sample twice weekly dryland program might look like:

Sample 2-Day-Per-Week Dryland Circuit: Complete 2-3 rounds of each circuit, resting for 90 seconds to 2 minutes between each round.

*Note: athletes would first go through a full dynamic warm-up.

Workout A

Circuit # 1

  • Suspension Trainer jump squat x 4-5
  • Cable Row with rotation x 6-8 per side
  • Stability Ball Pike x 8-10
  • Wall Slide x 10-12
  • Rest 90-120 seconds

Circuit # 2

  • Rainbow Medicine Ball Slam x 4-5 per side alternating
  • Split Stance Landmine Press x 6-8
  • Sled Reverse Fly x 8-10
  • Stability Ball Iron Cross x 10-12 per side alternating
  • Rest 90-120 seconds

Workout B

Circuit # 1

  • Split-Stance Trap Bar Deadlift x 3-5 per side
  • Medicine Ball Stability Push-up with shoulder tap x 5-6 per side
  • Medicine Ball Cradle Crunch x 10-12
  • Band Pull Apart x 12-15
  • Rest 90-120 seconds

Circuit #2

  • RDL with cable row x 5-6 per side
  • Tall Kneeling thruster x 6-8
  • Pull-Up with Knee Tuck x 6-8
  • Stability Ball Reverse Hyperextension x 10-12
  • Rest 90-120 seconds

Photo Credit: skynesher/iStock, Liliboas/iStock, digitalskillet/iStock