It’s interesting and concerning at the same time that Real Madrid’s current injury list features several players with soft-tissue injuries despite the emphasis this season on Zinedine Zidane’s rotation system and an approach to training that is described as high-intensity.
Fans will remember that when Zidane took over from Rafa Benítez, one of the first things he did was change the whole approach to training and the level was immediately ‘upped’.
He swiftly brought in his own fitness team and the changes were evident at the beginning. As time went by, Zidane then signed fitness coach Antonio Pintus from Olympique Lyon to up the levels further; citing that from his own time as a player, he felt that this was the approach to training that suited him best.
It’s becoming evident though that the high intensity approach brings it’s own risks. Dr José González briefly discussed this on AS Sports recently and made some valid points.
In order for training to be effective it needs to be realistic; and in order to be realistic it needs to at the very least match the intensity of a game situation. It’s okay doing one or two light sessions in the days after a particularly hard game but this shouldn’t happen too often.
Low-level training on a regular basis will ultimately mean that match conditions aren’t being simulated and the effectiveness of the overall programme will cease.
Coaches and managers tend to go with the approach that they personally feel gets the most out of the players. In Zidane’s case, he is obviously in favour of keeping the work-rate at a high level and has spoken in the past about how he favours this method based on his own experiences as a player.
In the modern game, high-intensity training doesn’t mean running people into the ground anymore. It means ensuring that the intensity of training delivered encourages the body to respond to exercise in such a way that the muscles, heart and lungs increase their function and adapt to the higher work-rate accordingly.
Physiological adaptations will only be gained as a result of stressing the body’s systems and that’s basically fitness-talk for saying that you need to work at a higher intensity if you want to achieve results. Zidane’s thinking will be that he needs to keep the training levels appropriate to the demands of match-play if they are going to be anything like effective.
Training needs to be realistic. Football requires players to be competent in several components of fitness including strength, speed, endurance, aerobic and anaerobic power together with agility and flexibility (Bangsbo et al, 1991, Mohr et al, 2003). Additionally, the ability to perform repeated high-intensity sprints is essential for a footballer (Bangsbo, 1994, Rampinini et al, 2009) and this definitely takes it’s toll on the muscles from an injury aspect.
If you are going to attempt to condition the players effectively, then it’s just not possible to do this without working at such a level where the body systems are being challenged repeatedly.
This will likely be Zidane’s way of thinking. It’s been common knowledge how he’s changed the training since Rafa left; although the latter’s methods were also founded on scientific principles. Rafa’s coaching and fitness team had their own ideas, as had Carlo Ancelotti’s before them.
With the fitness aspect of the game being more of a long term project as opposed to bringing immediate results, Zidane has gone for experience in people whom he knows and trusts.
Zidane’s appointment of Antonio Pintus as head of the strength and conditioning team was highly publicised at the time but has since been roundly criticised as the injuries have mounted in recent weeks. The ‘mini-pre-season’ that took place on return from Japan sought to build on the fitness levels of the players by challenging them physically at a time when their bodies were open for adaptation.
Such a strategy, however, isn’t without risk. In Real’s case, this is showing at the moment as an unusually-high injury rate despite frequent squad rotations. Few players have escaped injury this term.
In recent times Pepe, Mateo Kovačić, Lucas Vázquez and Sergio Ramos all came back injured from Japan and were already missing from training when the squad reported after the CWC. Gareth Bale had few options other than to have surgery, while Danilo and James Rodriguez appear to have struggled with niggling injuries for weeks.
Of late, however, Luka Modrić, Dani Carvajal and Marcelo were unlucky enough to sustain muscular injuries and they’ve now been joined by Raphaël Varane as well. Isco took a hard challenge against Granada and had to come off but Zidane didn’t rush him back.
It seems that the new fitness regime is testing the players’ physical strengths to the maximum. Injuries are becoming prevalent, even in matches. But should we really expect anything else?
Without wanting to hammer the stats yet again we know that 92% of injuries in football are reported to affect the four major muscle groups of the lower limb (Ekstrand et al, 2011) so it’s obvious that’s where the injuries are going to be. Studies have shown the hamstrings to top the charts at 37% with the adductors at 23% and although various authors will quote different statistics for each muscle group, sadly that’s a familiar but normal pattern.
The body takes time to adapt and perhaps it’s simply a case of acknowledging that Real Madrid players are still adjusting to working at the intensity demanded by Zidane, Pintus et al as they strive to obtain these adaptations. Being away so often on international duty doesn’t help either.
It might well be that Zidane is implementing the fitness policy with the idea of preventing injuries in the longer term. Clubs frequently ‘train down’ to avoid injuries but Zidane is clearly taking the opposite stance. He could actually be working to reduce the number of injuries the players sustain via the high-intensity training methods he appears to favour.
By upping the training levels to such an extent that the sessions are played out at the same intensity as the games are will develop football-specific fitness over time; but as we said earlier it’s a high risk strategy that Zidane is employing.
On the other hand we regularly criticise clubs, managers and coaches for taking a short-term approach and for not thinking beyond the next two or three games. It may be the case that Zidane is prepared to take on the immediate risk of pushing the players to their limits with the longer term in mind.
There’s far more work being done nowadays with regards to injury prevention than ever before; and if he gets it right and Real do manage to reduce their overall number of injuries as result, it will be difficult to argue with this approach in a year’s time.
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Ekstrand J, Hagglund M, Walde M (2011). Epidemiology of muscle injuries in professional football (soccer). American Journal of Sports Medicine. Vol 39; 1226 -1232.
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