Many GAA teams are overtraining and failing to tailor their sessions to way game has evolved
'That's topical," says Joe O'Connor, trainer of Clare's last All-Ireland-winning hurling team, now of Limerick, when asked if anyone runs laps any more. He raises the recent case of the Oregon Ducks, the US colleges football team, who trained so hard off-season that three of their players ended up being hospitalised. The US has provided much useful insight into physical training but it is not all good, clearly.
The same can be said of here. One of the greatest teams in Gaelic football was reared on a punishing diet of lap running, severe even for the time, but it probably served a better purpose then than in today's game. Even as recently as ten years ago Mick O'Dwyer went back to the old-school ways after Laois took a hammering in the Leinster Championship, reintroducing lap running and taking over the whip. They stiffed reigning All-Ireland champions Tyrone in the qualifier game that followed.
Tyrone were weakened by injury and fatigue but the ambush was hailed as a small victory for O'Dwyer's methods at a time when they were regarded as antiquated. In the 1990s Cork teams were known to use the tunnel around Páirc Uí Chaoimh to run laps as part of their physical preparation. Clare hurlers were running up a hill in Shannon, sessions so severe that the goalscorer in the 1995 All-Ireland final, Eamonn Taaffe, fell asleep in his car one night after training ended and woke up a few hours later to find himself in darkness with everyone else gone home.
Paudie Kissane didn't have to run in the tunnel at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, having come onto the Cork football panel a few years after the practice was abandoned. "When I started off, in 2002, laps would have been part of our training," he says. The training landscape has changed radically since then, but the games have too. Kissane is now a qualified athlete development and performance coach and had a spell with the Clare football team after retiring from playing. He has since hooked up with the Limerick senior football management team and runs his own consultancy, PK Athlete Development & Performance.
"I don't use laps per se. Maybe the slow laps are gone but at the same time, it's not that black and white. You might have a player who has been injured for a long time who is doing some slower endurance work. But in team sessions, that lap running is gone. It is more I suppose about trying to integrate, as much as possible, the ball. Maybe some teams used laps because it was more of a challenge mentally, a way of maybe testing players. It wouldn't be my approach. I feel there are more efficient and effective ways of doing that."
"It's gone back (to longer running)," says Pat Flanagan, trainer of the Kerry team that won All-Irelands in 2004 and '06, who also had spells with the Waterford hurlers and the Cork football team. "From what I've been listening to in recent years, maybe the last there or four, it's gone back. There are teams going on 1k runs. I was talking to someone who told me they are doing ten 800m runs in a forest early in the season, a county manager, and he rang me saying, 'I know this is not what you would do'; I said, 'you are right'.
"I think it may have come from AFL (Australian Football League) training where the volume of running is still quite high. These 1km runs, high volume training, seem to be back. You are even seeing that high volume in resistance training, in weight training, which is another concern. If you join those two together, high volume aerobics and high volume resistance, you can see where we might have over-training and diverse injuries. I would have thought we might have moved away from it."
Larger backroom teams have created a multiplicity of roles, all clamouring for attention, leaving a higher concentration of work across different disciplines. It places a huge responsibility on the manager to co-ordinate the different roles effectively. "It's not old-fashioned laps, it's more like a new-fashion distance running," says Flanagan. "It is still what I would call aerobic-type training. Longer runs seem to be back in vogue."
With a background as a sprinter, Flanagan reiterates his old line that slow running promotes players who are good at running slower. He says the body naturally adapts to the pace of the training.
Old habits die hard, though. "I did a workshop with lot of coaches about five years ago," says Flanagan, "and presented the type of runs and movement I do with teams and as I was walking off the pitch they said, 'we know what you do but, tell us, when do you really do the long running because we know you have to do it?' They wanted to know on the quiet, you can tell us, kind of thing. They felt you had to do this to get fit."
Flanagan, who also worked with the Waterford hurlers under Michael Ryan, favoured shorter, more intensive runs based on what the matches were telling them. "In the 2004 and '06 All-Ireland (football) finals, the average run of players was about 20m, so that was usually moderate to high speed, so you realise what you need is to be good at short sprints a lot of the time. The ball was in play for the second half for maybe 15-16 minutes. So you are looking at a stop-start and intermittent game. The type of runs are short and explosive and lots of recovery."
Under Jack O'Connor during his time in Kerry, Flanagan says the idea was to hold back and avoid overcooking. "I heard one inter-county manager say last year after they were well beaten, that they might have over-trained. I am not saying I know everything, what I am saying is that I see a trend towards higher volume and I am not convinced that it is the right way to go."
In 2013 Clare hurlers did "one lap" according to their trainer Joe O'Connor, who worked closely with the coach Paul Kinnerk to create a training module that would be match-related. "The one lap we did was a punishment lap because lads were late. Everything was over five yards, I wanted to see how good you are over five yards. The specificity of training has come on an awful lot," says O'Connor.
"There was a county in recent years known as super, super fit, the fittest around by a country mile. But a half-fit Kerry could play them off the park because they just had the football."
O'Connor says moderate, sustained training is more attuned to player needs and less prone to causing injury than prolonged spells of arduous activity.
"If we want guys to run 200m sprints, we can do it, but when will they ever do it in a match? What happens is that they make shorter runs and then have to decelerate, so the muscle contracts as they need a lot of strength and force to counteract their own body weight when stopping. Linear runs don't allow you to stop and change direction so a lot of ligament and quad and lower back injuries can come from poor braking."
Moderation may seem anathema to team training at this time of year but it is a compromise that trainers need to make. "I have often gone into a session," says O'Connor, "and based on information available we have decided that there is very little being done tonight, that we need a light session that is not very intense. It is often about simple things like getting proper sleep and eating good, natural food. Don't over-complicate it."
Pat Daly, one of the architects of the GAA's annual coaching conferences, the latest of which was held two weeks ago, accepts that there is a need for physical training, but as part of a balanced programme. "Running the daylights out of them; that is crazy as it comes. You hear fellas saying they were up at five in the morning and four guys were throwing up; that is not coaching.
"I spoke to a guy one night and he said they trained 25 out of 28 nights. I said, 'ye are mad?' There is no basis in science for that. People will coach the way they are taught. We're saying that is not good enough any more, there has to be a rational thinking behind it. There is still extremism, the belief that the harder you subject the team to, that the better they will be."
There is still a love of the hard sacrifice, with stories abounding of teams heading off for character-building weekends where they are put through gruelling workouts and deprived of sleep, being subjected to a form of psychological and physical trauma or abuse to see how they cope.
Or you could be like Tony Browne, Mr Longevity, and go fishing - recognising the need for a balance between work and rest. Too holistic for some coaches, but it seemed to work for Tony.
Sunday Indo Sport