Tuesday 21 November 2017

Bryan Cullen: 'The best way to train is playing the game'

Dublin star and sports science graduate Bryan Cullen talks exercise, nutrition and a new approach to training

Bryan Cullen
Bryan Cullen
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

TIME was when the perceived wisdom on hydration before a match and at half-time was "don't drink water, it'll give you cramps." And training? Laps of the pitch, a few push-ups and jumping jacks, and then a bit of a game of ball.

Stretching? Reaching out the hand for a well-earned pint after 'training' was probably the extent of it. Nutrition? Sure, whatever you're having yourself.

Indeed, I recall doing an article around 1981 on the Dublin-based Kerry players, Jack O'Shea among them. Micheal O Muircheartaigh conducted the training and then it was back into town for the customary prawn cocktail, followed by steak and chips served up at around 10.30 at night.

The food was in accordance with the best ideas of refuelling at the time, but nobody was researching the effect on the players' digestive systems or the quality of their sleep after such a good feed.

And yes, Kerry under Mick O'Dwyer and Dublin, managed by Kevin Heffernan, didn't do badly at all in that era. Indeed, Heffo, and then O'Dwyer, pushed the boundaries of fitness for Gaelic football to new heights, but in the 21st century, all is changed, changed utterly.

Sports performance and its relationship to the body with the objective of getting the best out of a player has reached new levels of knowledge, research and expertise. When golfers become athletes, you know the world has changed, and it's the same in the GAA.

REVOLUTION

Bryan Cullen, the Dublin captain for the recent Allianz Football League final, epitomises the revolution in training and fitness in football.

On the pitch, Cullen (27) is a member of a Dublin side which manager Pat Gilroy has transformed in relation to its work ethic.

He freely admits that there is no shame in a player holding up his hand and calling to be substituted, such are the pace and demands of the modern game, particularly in the half-forward line.

"The role is very demanding," he said. "It's very difficult to do it for 70 minutes. It's the nature of how the game has gone. If you can deliver a good 45-60 minutes and then bring on the fresh legs for the last 10-15 minutes, then that's what you do. It's been working well for us over the last year or so and hopefully it will continue."

Cullen gave two examples of matches in which he had given everything and was replaced: "Previously playing for Dublin, lads might have been a little bit embarrassed to be taken off, but lads know that's not the case now. Invariably, when we take players off, it's because they've emptied the tank for the cause.

"In fact, lads have shown great maturity throughout the course of the last championship. When they've feel they've given all they can give, they've put the hand up and said 'Get me out of here, get fresh legs on.' And that's a sign of how the team has grown and become a little more mature over the last year.

"It has happened to me. When we beat Armagh last year, after 60 minutes Paddy O'Donoghue, one of our selectors, went by and I said 'get me out of here'.

"Even against Down in the recent League match I got the message to the line. I did a lot of running that day. I chased everything in that match. In hindsight I'd probably have been better off chasing things I had a realistic chance of getting a hand on, or getting a tackle in, but that day I just chased everything. I was exhausted after 40 minutes."

Away from the game, the Skerries Harps player applies himself to his studies at Dublin City University. His undergraduate degree was in sports science and health, and he's undertaking a PhD now with Professor Niall Moyna in exercise physiology.

APPLIES

Cullen grew up just at the end of the era of laps and long-distance running, but is now at the hub of the latest sports science knowledge as it applies to the GAA. These are interesting times for a man with his qualifications.

"I suppose the training methods were a little more basic when I was starting off," he said. "Generally, running laps was how teams conditioned themselves aerobically, but the way things have gone now, particularly with Mickey Whelan looking after us -- Dr Mickey Whelan now, he recently got a PhD -- he's hugely experienced and he implements the most up-to-date training methods with us.

"In the gym, strength and conditioning has become a huge part of it. I suppose, in the past it would have been about training muscle, where nowadays the philosophy would be training movement patterns specific to the needs of Gaelic football.

"When you're on the pitch, obviously no one performs long, slow, distance running in Gaelic football. It's all about bouts of short-duration, high-intensity activity.

"A good aerobic base is required to help you recover from those high-intensity bouts, but what we're seeing now is training methods that are more closely replicating the on-field demands, so training has become that bit more specific to the needs of Gaelic football.

"The way most teams are training now, everyone gets fit with the ball. The most specific way of training for Gaelic football is to play the game.

"Soccer teams have been doing it for years. I'm reading Kenny Dalglish's book at the moment, and he said the biggest change he's seen from his previous term to this term, is the sports science support.

"Liverpool had a tradition of playing five-a-side games in training throughout the 70s and the 80s, when they were very strong.

"Back then, probably without even realising it, they were doing the right things, so that's something that's come more into Gaelic football.

"You can even see it when teams are warming up, they play small-sided games before they go into the real thing."

And what about food intake?

"Since I've been involved with GAA, the nutrition has been very good," said Cullen.

"I've been involved with Dublin development squads since I was 15 and we were well versed in eating carbohydrates, taking our protein in for recovery and all that, and hydrating properly.

"It needs to become a lifestyle and not just for county footballers. Exercising and healthy eating needs to become a lifestyle habit.

"It's not the easiest thing to do. A lot of people lead demanding lives. It's very easy to skip your gym workout, or jump in the car instead of walking.

"As an inter-county Gaelic footballer, it's also quite expensive to be eating the right things -- making sure the house is stocked with fruit, the bottled water in the fridge. You're buying quality meats instead of nipping down and buying pizza or cheap fast food.

"There is a financial burden to eating well, and all those recovery supplements and vitamins you have to take as well, these all cost money."

Apart from playing and training and his studies, Cullen also works part-time at Medfit Wellness and Rehabilitation in Blackrock Business Park.

They offer gym and fitness and rehab programmes for everyone, from elite athletes to ordinary folk, using state of the art technology.

"My role is that I work closely with both athletes and general public, largely in rehabilitation from injuries," said Cullen.

"John Murphy, who is a director of the company, was physio with the Dublin senior team for a number of years, and now he's a physio in the Blackrock Clinic.

"After John takes clients through the initial phases of the rehab, he'll pass them on to myself where we can look at improving any deficiencies they have, improving their strength levels, anything from balance to core stability to try and prevent these injuries happening in the future.

"It's an area I'd like to get into long term, as strength and conditioning would be an interest of mine. It's been great hands-on experience for me working with Medfit.

"It really gives me an opportunity to implement the theory I've learned in college in a practical setting."

Cullen has a contribution to make to Dublin football, but he eventually may also have a major influence on the fitness and training methods of young GAA players for generations to come through his research at DCU.

"The first study I looked at was to devise a standard battery of fitness tests that any GAA coach can implement at grassroots level," he said.

"My study focused on 16 to 18-year-old Gaelic footballers. At the moment the issue would be if someone does fitness tests on a minor or U-16 team they'll get the results, but all they can do is compare the best with the worst within that group.

"They've no idea what the standard is outside that picture, so what I've done is develop national norms for 16 to 18-year-old Gaelic footballers from a standard battery of fitness tests -- everything from percentage body fat, to five and 20-metre speed, aerobic capacity, vertical jump.

"We've also looked at positional profiles as well and also the last thing we looked at was the influence of growth and maturity on the physiological development of kids.

"Within a senior schools team, you've kids from 16 to 18, so we divided them up based on their date of birth, and looked at whether the kids born closer to the eligibility date have any sort of physiological advantage over the kids born later in the term.

"That's the first study. Going forward to build on that, we were thinking of looking at the activity profile of adolescent Gaelic footballers, via the use of GPS systems looking at heart-rate response during competitive matches, looking at the distance they're covering during games, looking at how much is walking, jogging, how much is sprinting.

"What you could take from that is, it would all be about improving training methods.

"If you've an idea of what demands are placed on an individual during the game, then the idea would be to replicate that training level to prepare them for that situation.

"It would mean that when they go into that competitive environment, they're so used to the demands being placed on them at training that it's no shock to the system at all and they're perfectly able to cope with it."

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