The main thrust of my Recovery and Regeneration presentation was a better approach to the organization of training elements, not scrambling for modalities and cold tubs after poor training methods have been implemented. As part of this discussion I presented the high-low approach developed by Charlie Francis in the 1980’s. By dividing your training into high intensity and low intensity elements, while eliminating the medium intensity elements from your program, you could maximize the adaptation of key attributes in speed and power athletes. A very simple approach with a complex explanation that allows you to easily distinguish between alactic adaptations and aerobic systems geared at improving both work capacity and recovery abilities.
The approach seemed to be well received by the coaches and practitioners in attendance and it generated a lot of discussion. In particular, I engaged in some detailed discussion with a collegiate football strength and conditioning coach who had some great ideas on incorporating a high-low approach with both his off-season conditioning regimen, as well as sitting down with his head football coach about organizing training camp and practice in a similar fashion. I thought this was a great idea. If we could convince football coaches to apply a high-low approach to their practices and specific football preparation, I believe we could improve alactic abilities, enhance recovery and reduce the risk of injury during these sessions.
The approach to off-season strength and conditioning workouts is the easiest part of this equation. High-intensity elements include sprinting, jumping, explosive med-ball work and maximal agility efforts. In addition, explosive lifts and heavier multi-joint efforts can be classified as high-intensity training elements that are performed on the same day. Conversely, low intensity efforts can be undertaken on a separate day, including tempo runs, med-ball circuit throws and passes, body-weight circuits, sub-maximal agility drills, range-of-motion work and other peripheral activities.
It is important to note that on the low intensity day athletes will need an explicit explanation of the magnitude of intensity expected – very sub-maximal – understanding that they will be working continuously, but at a manageable intensity. The work can still be characterized as ‘difficult’ with athletes breathing hard and feeling a burn in their muscles. This is especially true in the early phases of the training program when athletes are adapting to the work rates and volumes. It is not uncharacteristic for athletes to creep into the ‘medium’ zone during these early stages of a training program. The important point is to not increase the training volumes too rapidly during these early workouts, thereby giving the athletes a chance to adapt to the work and assimilate the training within their low intensity zone.
In the case of on-field practice scenarios, things can get a little more complicated, as training objectives become entangled in the need for individual skill acquisition and playbook encoding, with a sprinkle of mental toughness. In short, the drive to run through as many reps as possible often takes precedent over all physiological guidelines ingrained in the off-season. While it is not the job of the strength coach to jump in and cry foul, there are some ways that sport performance staff can offer some advice on the allocation of work in training camp and in-season practice scenarios. The key steps in making the high-low approach work for you are as follows:
1. Properly identify your intensity zones by position and activity.
2. Determine optimal work to recovery ratios by position and activity.
3. Identify areas where the high-low approach is not feasible, and put in the work later to minimize the damage (i.e. recovery and regeneration).
4. Balance off any medium intensity work with an increase in low-intensity active recovery work performed using cyclical activities.
Let’s examine these individual steps a little closer.
1. Identify Intensity Zones by Position and Activity
Each position on the field must be reviewed and classified in terms of the movement and energy system requirements, including maximal efforts for physical contact, change of direction, acceleration rates and maximal velocities. This would include all aspects of game play, but should also involve an assessment of all on-field work done in training camps and practice. Drills that are run in practice should be reviewed thoroughly to determine biomotor requirements, stresses and intensity levels involved to make the drill effective. If a team has the means of measuring velocities and force of direction change, it can be very useful to identify baseline values for different activities undertaken in practice scenarios. For offensive linemen who may not achieve any meaningful velocities, but are involved in maximal combative situations, heart rate monitoring can serve as a measurement for effort and recovery.
In some drills, the emphasis could be on skill refinement or strategic reinforcement and may not require maximal or near-maximal efforts. In these cases, these drills could be classified as low intensity activities. For offensive and defensive linemen, low intensity work can involve basic footwork and hand-fighting skills, as well as postural work. For a defensive back, back-pedalling drills that transition into forward running or turning and running can be done at low intensity to work on technical issues and hip mobility. The important point to make is that it is not uncommon for coaches to take a drill that could be executed at a low intensity (i.e. 75% of maximum effort or lower) and turn it into a medium intensity struggle. Again, the philosophy of, “If we can make it tougher, we can make it better!” often creeps into these drills with the result being poorer technique, limited adaptation and increased risk of injury. Clear guidelines of what constitutes low, medium and high intensity must be articulated to every coach on the field if such as system is going to work.
Rarely do we have to articulate the definition of high intensity. Football players typically have no problem working at high intensities. Where coaches often get into trouble is when they do not obey the laws of human physiology and work durations and recovery opportunities are not followed in a manner that allows for high intensity work to flourish.
2. Determine Optimal Work-to-Recovery Ratios
This leads to our next requirement: proper work-to-recovery ratios that support a high-low approach. If we are to assume that maximal effort in an activity such as sprinting requires no less than one minute of recovery for every 10 yards covered, it gets a little sticky. In situations where multiple repetitions must be produced at different positions during drills, conventional wisdom is that more repetitions are always better than less repetitions. If a receiver is covering a maximal-effort 20-yard route in a drill and it involves at least one high-velocity direction change, it is difficult to convince a coach that the player needs to stand on the sidelines for no less than two minutes to ensure he is ready to maximally benefit from the drill – at least from a physiological point of view. So how do we address this issue?
If we accept that fact that an “adequate” number of repetitions must be accumulated in training camp and practice, the next step is to determine a means of meeting halfway. The goal is to ensure that there are enough healthy players at each position to allow for a natural recovery gap between reps. If there are enough bodies between you and the next repetition, it helps to diffuse the stress of numerous repetitions and enhances the efficacy of the work being done. However, if numbers are sparse, the loads go up significantly and very rarely are these changes taken into account. I remember one NFL strength coach telling me how when one of their receivers went down to injury, the practice load of every other receiver went up no less than 12 percent. So, not only does the overall load go up, but with one less body, it is quite likely that the recovery times between reps are shrinking as well. So what is your option – beg, plead and scrounge for any extra seconds you can get for recovery between player repetitions. Physiological truths may hold no water in the school of hard knocks, so you must appeal to the sensibilities of the coaching staff in any way possible.
Once again, this is where data can be of use. Measuring overall training loads during practice – distance covered, velocities attained and direction changes made – can help to build a case for proper progressions, greater recoveries and a modification to the pattern of loading. Recovery monitoring through advanced means such as Heart Rate Variability (HRV) can help to notify coaches that athletes are “running hot” and need more recovery to allow for improved performance and reduced injury risk. The idea would be to not attain optimal recovery durations – as this is not realistic – but push the coaches in the direction of greater recovery. In the “game of inches,” we need to be striving for extra recovery seconds in this regard.
3. Identify Circumstances Where Adhering Strictly to the High-Low Approach is Not Feasible
When I was training track athletes who competed at distances between 200 and 400 meters, there were always times when medium intensities had to be part of the program. We were careful not to pile on the lactic-anaerobic work in successive training sessions, but we knew that we had spend a portion of our work in that zone in order to fully prepare our athletes for the demands of those events. This is no different than certain circumstances in football. As more football programs incorporate no-huddle, hurry-up offensive schemes, the demands of the game change drastically.
It is important to note that from 2008 to 2012, 64% of FCS teams increased the number of plays they ran per minute of possession according to FootballStudyHall.com. In 2012, the University of Oregon ran about one play every 20 seconds. Assuming that an average play in college football takes about six seconds, the work-to-recovery ratio for up-tempo teams can be around 1:2. So for every six seconds of high-intensity play, the players on the field will get 12 to 14 seconds to recover before the next play. If the average drive consumes about three minutes, almost 60 seconds of that time is high-intensity football action, with only two minutes of rest. I would say that such an approach would land us smack dab in the medium zone. This is not limited to offensive players, as defensive coaches must also physically prepare their players for the demands of defending against an up-tempo offense.
As such, football coaches have tried to adapt their practices to simulate the work-to-rest ratios experienced in a game situation. Sticking rigidly to a high-low approach in the off-season would not adequately prepare the players for the tempo of this type of strategy, as fatigue would set in very quickly and negatively impact speed, power, strength, coordination, skill and mental acuity. However, there are better ways to prepare athletes for special endurance demands than simply having them directly simulate game conditions in practice.
Of course, developing both a healthy speed-reserve with high-intensity speed training and building a broad low-intensity aerobic foundation with tempo running can give players a level of conditioning that can overcome the rigors of an up-tempo game plan. However, I would also recommend that teams incorporate a plan that takes advantage of sub-dividing a drive into smaller parts so as to intensify the characteristics of a series of plays. This is no different than a 400m runner doing a split workout of 200+100+100 or 250+150 with a 45 second break between individual sub-reps for training “Special Endurance” qualities. While running a straight 400m sprint in training would be deemed ‘specific’ to the demands of the race, sub-dividing the distance into smaller runs with very short breaks would allow you to run these segments faster, with slightly less fatigue and greater adaptation outcomes.
In the case of a football practice scenario, ‘team’ sessions could be undertaken in a similar fashion. If we assume a typical three minute drive is comprised of 10 plays, rather than running through 10 plays with 15 second breaks, I would look at groupings of three to five plays with the same recovery interval, but separating these sub-groupings by breaks of 45-120 seconds, depending on the time of year. A common example would be using sub-group breaks of 120 seconds in the initial phases of training camp, then narrowing the recovery times down to 30-60 seconds to approach near-game conditions. The diagram below provides a conceptual example of this approach.
For programs that have the technical means – monitoring systems that have velocity and inertial values for individual players, as well as heart rate data – sport performance staff could monitor the intensity levels of these sessions to determine if the plays were actually being performed at or above the intensity of game conditions. Total practice volumes would never be as high as game time (i.e. 70-90 plays per game), as other practice elements and conditioning sessions should also be considered as part of the overall practice training volume to avoid overtraining conditions. If coaches could structure their practice sessions with these goals in mind, football programs could be more certain that their players could perform at peak levels of performance when it counted, and discard medium intensity work that does not lead to improvements on the field.
4. Balance Off Medium Intensity Work with an Increase in Low-Intensity Active-Recovery Work
In cases where medium-intensity work becomes an unfortunate side effect of practice objectives, measures must be taken to help the athlete recover from this work. One of the best ways to hasten recovery is through proper application of low-intensity work. In this sense, low-intensity work would be classified as an “active recovery” measure. This work could be augmented with other passive recovery measures, but the main benefit will come from some sort of whole body exercise performed at a very low intensity, creating a significant circulatory response. In addition, the work should be of a low-impact variety, particularly with larger players. Continuous or interval-based stationary bike work is likely the easiest way to effect a recovery response from athletes that are typically faced with heavy impacts from week-to-week. If an athlete has access to a swimming pool, the combination of whole body exercise – even through easy jogging back and forth in chest deep water – and the massaging action of the water help to improve recovery status. For smaller players, easy tempo runs on a grass surface can be low-impact enough to not create any additional stress-related problems. Treadmill running can also suffice, as most higher-end treadmill decks are dampened adequately.
Low-intensity, pulsing electrical muscle stimulation can be of use in a local sense, assisting with recovery to specific muscle groups, but may not have the same effect as whole body exercise in terms of creating a strong parasympathetic response. In an athlete that is properly trained in the off-season with a comprehensive high-low program, I would expect their recovery response to be even more profound due to their well-developed circulatory system.
I firmly believe that a football team can effectively adopt a high-low approach to their allocation of work during training camps and practices. Before you start, a good deal of work must go into the planning stages of the process, including a detailed evaluation of the type of work to be done on the field. But more importantly, the football coaching staff must be on board and part of the entire process. Football coaches may have training camp and practice objectives that do not obey the laws of the high-low approach. This is to be anticipated, and should not be considered an obstacle, but more of a welcome challenge. It is not the job of sports performance staff to divert the head football coach from his philosophical approach to the game.
Great football coaches have exceptional intuitive abilities and wisdom when it comes to the game of football. Sometimes emotion can enter into the equation and take coaches away from the goal of producing positive adaptations on the field. It is the job of sports performance staff to provide objective data and common-sense arguments for a more organized approach to allocating work during practice and training camp. In some cases, practice methods can become rather non-specific when compared to what actually happens in the games. When workloads become overbearing and recovery times far too short, practice can become a struggle in the middle zone, and not representative of the speed, power and sharp decision making required for game success.
This article is not intended to be a “blueprint” for success, but more of a catalyst for thought – spurring football coaches to look at how they structure their practices and how they can optimize performance. If sport performance staff are able to collect good data sets on both game conditions and practice tendencies, this information can be used to mold future decisions on practice management approaches in coordination with the entire coaching staff. If velocities in training camp and practice are nowhere near what is required in the game, this information needs to make its way into the coaches’ hands in a non-confrontational manner. As one professional sports general manager recently told me, “Coaches are competitive people. If you can build a case that demonstrates to them – either through data analytics or even anecdotal evidence – that your approach will make the team better, they will sit down and listen.” The high-low approach is a very simple application with a complex explanation. Once coaches understand the value of the approach, it can be a very valuable tool for managing all of their work, both on the field and off the field.