'Coaches don't all know what they're doing – a lot of stuff is still off the wall'
Fitness expert Pat Flanagan tells Cliona Foley how to get a team in peak condition
LIKE everyone else, Pat Flanagan watched the virtuoso performance of hurling's latest boyband – Clare's 'Boyz to Men' – last Saturday with great interest and delight.
The blistering speed at which the All-Ireland hurling final replay was played was dazzling, and Cork selector Seanie McGrath noted how radically the game has accelerated since his own days of terrorising full-back lines.
Pace – everyone expects – will be this winter's new training buzzword because it was such an obvious component in propelling Clare's hurlers and Dublin's footballers up the steps of the Hogan Stand last month.
But Flanagan knows enough about the science of training, and the widescale mistakes that are still being made, to issue an early warning hooter about the GAA's latest potential training fad.
The former Irish sprint champion, who worked with Kerry's successful footballers over two periods (2004-06 and 2009-10), was among the pioneers of a new science-based approach to fitness training in the past decade.
He was also part of Michael Ryan's Waterford hurling back-room team for the past two years and is constantly being approached by clubs, coaches and counties looking for the panacea to their ills.
And for all the progress away from the 20-lap regimes of old, he is still shocked by the fallacies and misconceptions doing the rounds.
The switch to shorter, sharper training runs still has the potential to be misinterpreted.
In recent seasons, Flanagan was approached by a particularly successful club whose training consisted of 27 repetitions of 200m sprints, apparently because "they'd heard that was what Armagh were doing in 2002-03".
"I seriously doubt Armagh were ever doing that. Your legs would be shaking so much you wouldn't be able to kick a ball afterwards," says Flanagan.
Another inter-county manager proudly outlined his training regime – running them up a hill, down for a series of press-ups followed by five laps around a track – and asked for his verdict.
He was not best pleased when Flanagan observed: "Well it's definitely going to get them good ... at running slow."
The Waterford native, who lectures in IT Tralee, was among those who pioneered weight training and shorter, sharper running in training, married with ball-work, in order to improve strength, speed and agility.
The most a player runs, at one time, in a game, is rarely much more than 20 metres, Flanagan points out, so speed, power and sharpness are what is needed, not the plodding endurance of a marathon runner.
You can improve speed, he says, "only if you approach it as a skill and practise the skill".
Another of the big talking points a week ago was the extraordinary fitness levels of both teams.
The only ones who seemed to be breathless were the 82,000-plus spectators, which seemed in stark contrast to the previous week when players from both of the football finalists seemed to be seriously flagging after 40 minutes.
Flanagan explains this is because Gaelic football is physically more demanding than hurling.
"The pace last Sunday was relentless but there are far more breaks in hurling and slightly less play – hurlers don't run as far as footballers because the ball is travelling more," he says.
"The intensity of the Clare tackling was fantastic. But, in football generally, between handpassing and the speed of the ball, players are doing a lot more running, and the training has to be different."
Clare's superb conditioning and speed did not surprise him because he knows, closely, the man responsible – IT Tralee lecturing colleague Joe O'Connor, who also worked with Davy Fitzgerald when he was Waterford manager.
But in other quarters, and especially at club level, Flanagan acknowledges that when the strength and conditioning (S&C) genie was let out of the GAA bottle, it went a bit psycho.
"There's been an explosion of interest in strength and conditioning, it's absolutely gone through the roof," he says. "The problem, especially at club level, is that there's now this huge expectation that coaches should bring in a strong element of it even though they usually don't have a background in it.
"They mean well, they're going anywhere they can to try to educate themselves, but they don't all know what they're doing and some of the stuff that's going on is still a bit off-the-wall.
"There's never been as much information out there now – with the internet and everything – but you really have to know how to filter it and how to properly adapt it for your team."
As he notes, the S&C training needs of an underage club team, a county development squad and a senior team are all entirely different and, even with a single team, vary hugely depending on their stage of development.
With Kerry in 2009, for example, "we had worked them so hard for six or seven years, there was an understanding of 'why flog them again?' so we eased back on their physical training."
Flanagan also stresses that fitness remains just one part of preparing a successful team, and that elements like skill, coaching, tactics and mental strength are still hugely important and are more difficult to coach or measure.
"In an amateur game your challenge, as a strength and conditioning expert, is simply to find 'how can we train our players as little as possible with the maximum return?" he stresses. "It should be all about reducing volume and improving quality but, unfortunately, there's still an awful lot of the opposite.
"There is still this tendency for teams to look around at their rivals and think 'if they're doing that, we'll have to do more'. At club level teams used to train once or twice a week but now it's four or five times weekly, especially with clubs that go on to contest the provincial and All-Ireland series."
Flanagan notes that even teams who look in peak condition can still flop physically as their season climaxes, which means they have either over-trained or mistimed their training.
'Periodisation' – tapering training in order to peak at the desired time – is one of his areas of expertise.
Such is the thirst for guidance that Flanagan keeps encountering, he and Jimmy Payne – another fitness expert who has worked with Irish boxing's underage high-performance squads as well as the Waterford hurlers – have opened a new gym (Peak Fitness) in Waterford that includes a high-performance area for individuals and clubs.
They are also embarking on a series of one-day 'Peak Essentials' workshops, starting in the local Tower Hotel this day week.
"It is open to everyone, whether player, parent, coach or development coach," he says. "As well as specialist advice on strength and conditioning, Jimmy will talk about high performance for underage athletes, we have advisers on nutrition, health and neurolinguistics, and Val Andrews will talk about what makes a good coach.
"There seems to be a huge demand for it and we hope it will help filter out all the myths and misconceptions going around and provide people with basic, clear guidelines about the best practices in team preparation."
The workshops cost €95 per person. For details see peaktalks.eventbrite.com