Returning an Athlete to Sport: Loading
How best to return an athlete to sport following an injury is a common deliberation between Strength & Conditioning staff, the medical team, and athletes alike. The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) has released guidelines as to how to most safely return an athlete to full competition. To follow these guidelines, one first needs to understand a few key concepts. These include workload, the body’s adaptive potential, and rest.
Workload and Adaptive Potential
Workload is any stress the body undergoes during a specific activity. Some examples include tackling, running (distance or intensity), throwing/bowling, jumping, etc. The body’s adaptive potential is the body’s ability to adapt to a 10-20% increase in training load across a week. Increasing the load at a faster rate results in a greater risk of injury. Furthermore, increasing the load at a slower rate means that you are not taking full advantage of your ability to improve your skills and training capacity.
Rest is a vital part of recovery. Your body needs time to repair damaged tissues and improve new skills. These skills are necessary for injury prevention in the future. In the past, research recommended that athletes have full rest from activity. This is to allow them time to heal. However, recent research now shows that while recovering, it is incredibly important to maintain as close to your full training workload as possible. For example, if a runner is training 100km/week, but due to pain can only run 40km, they are better off maintaining that 40km/week whilst they rehab the injury than stopping running altogether.
Returning to Sport
You can see how these principles work together when getting an athlete back to full competition. Ceasing an activity completely means that it will take much longer to return to full workload with 10-20% training increases each week. Therefore, it is important to maintain a good workload during their recovery. As a result, the athlete is at less risk of injury and more likely to return to sport sooner. The graph below is taken from the guidelines provided by the AIS.
Drew, M. K. (2015). Loads and risks following troughs.
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