independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Looking for the edge: GAA leading way in fitness technology revolution

Laois players – who used the Squadplus system this year – show their disappointment after losing to Dublin

This morning, the Huddersfield Giants rugby league squad will gather with their management and back-room team for their first pre-season meeting ahead of the 2013 campaign.

After their initial debriefing and discussions, the gruelling fitness tests will begin. Players will be assessed in every fitness category before being given a baseline figure from which they will be compared throughout the season.

The measurement process the Giants will use -- Squadplus -- has been pioneered this season in Gaelic games and has already been used by Cork, Galway and Laois footballers.

Seamus Kerrigan designed the system, largely through the guidance of Aidan O'Connell, a strength and conditioning coach with Munster Rugby and Cork footballers.

Over the last few weeks, Kerrigan has been adding new technical features to his Squadplus model for the Giants -- particularly on flexibility tests. But the system is basically a monitoring device where players log on every day and record data regarding their training and overall wellness. In turn, those aggregated statistics can be flagged and dissected by a manager, coach, dietician and physio in order to identify burnout, injury prevention and the necessity for customised and specialised training.

"I find it very user friendly for me as a coach," says Barry Solan, strength and conditioning coach with Laois. "Firstly, it gives me an overall picture of how the lads are in terms of their training load and general well-being.

"If, for example, a player has young children and has had a bad night's sleep, that will be flagged and I can communicate with him before training. We can make a decision then with the manager if he needs to take a step out of the fitness work. It just gives you a heads-up and allows you to ask better questions."

There are many different methods that can be used to measure training volume and intensity, but since most coaches manipulate both training intensity and volume in their training programmes, taking measures of both independently to gauge training may not truly reflect the training stress imposed on the player.

A simple method for quantifying training loads from a variety of different modalities into one simple arbitrary number is commonly known as the session rating of perceived exertion (RPE) method. This method of monitoring training load requires each player to provide an RPE for each exercise session along with a measure of training time.

To calculate a measure of session intensity, players record information in a question and answer format within 30 minutes of finishing their workout.

The major advantage of the session RPE method over other reported methods of quantifying training load is that it is simple to measure and relatively easy to interpret. The most value a coach can get from accurately monitoring the training load is a better understanding of each individual athlete's tolerance.

With that background, coaches can prescribe training loads accordingly. From a sports science perspective, a valid and reliable record of training load also allows the effectiveness of different training to be assessed. It can be used to ensure that both sufficient training loads are implemented and that excessive loads are not.

"Given that players can rate the intensity of a session from an RPE perspective, it gives the information on what players perceive," says Kerrigan. "That allows the coaches to adjust the stimulus and specifically tailor training sessions and monitor overtraining or fatigue. It is also a simple way of getting access to the information. If you were to do so otherwise on an Excel sheet or making phone calls, it's far too cumbersome."

Technology-wise, there are three ways to access the system: an iPhone app, an Android app and a web-based connection. Log-on statistics show that 90pc of players use the phone apps to record their data.

"Firstly, I don't think this would have been successful prior to smartphones," says Kerrigan. "If guys have to boot up a PC at home, a lot of them won't bother. You can see that from the handful of guys who don't have smartphones, their compliance rates are lower."

Just as the revolutionaries in the Kerry football team of 1913 unconsciously pioneered the concept of ice baths when dipping themselves into the freezing Atlantic Ocean at Fenit Beach after training sessions conducted by a trainer schooled at Tottenham Hotspur, the pursuit for an edge has always been part of Gaelic games.

That pursuit though, has been more relentless than ever in recent years, with every team looking for an edge.

Some GAA teams have recently been using a GPS unit, a pack which contains a heart-rate monitor, digital compass, gyroscope and accelerometer.

It's worn across the shoulders and can transmit real-time data on a player's speed, direction, jumps, impact loads, distance covered and heart rate to anywhere in the world, five times a second.

It sends a wireless signal to a computer so that coaches can analyse 'body load' -- the physical stress experienced by a player. By building up a player's profile, it's then possible to monitor progress, tailor training, and allow coaches and managers to make far more informed decisions about when to make substitutions.

Some players though, expressed reservations about that model. For example, if a player did extra fitness work after training, which has a positive mental effect but which increases body load, it can create concern about his physiological well-being. The difference with the Squadplus model is that it provides more of a macro view of what players have been doing over a number of days.

"It's very much like any business reporting system," says Kerrigan. "You set targets, but unless you measure them and know what you are trying to achieve, you'll never really know if you are getting there or not."

Over the summer, Solan was able to tap into the benefits of the model with Laois while he was working as a strength and conditioning coach with the Polish soccer team during Euro 2012. While Solan was in Turkey and Austria for training camps, and in Poland during the competition, he was able to assess and tailor individual training regimes to Laois footballers hundreds of miles away.

The whole experience of working so closely with an international soccer team also proved to Solan how professional the GAA world has now become. "Anyone who is involved in a high-level inter-county team, would be comparable to any professional athlete," says Solan.

"The key difference, in a lot of cases, is that the right training systems are being taken on board and GAA players are doing the right type of training for the sport they are playing. Nutrition, diet, all of that is improving. The only thing GAA players don't have compared to soccer teams is recovery.

"But a lot of what is going on in the GAA is very comparable with what is going on in other top sports."

The fact that Huddersfield Giants are now using a system that GAA teams have already used proves as much. In the GAA, the evolution continues to go hand in hand with the revolution.

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