Long periods of travel for tournaments, matches, or even practice require athletes to maintain optimum levels of strength and power. Adjust training volumes to accommodate high-intensity playing in order to protect muscles from breaking down. Muscular breakdown occurs within 72 hours of the last training session. For athletes who are resistance training, skipping resistance training a mere two times a week results in loss of power and performance.
Follow these five guidelines to maintain performance, even while traveling:
1. Avoid steady-state cardio unless you are recovering.
Endurance exercises can turn off muscle-building pathways while promoting catabolism through an increase in the glucocorticoid hormone cortisol, inhibiting muscular development and slowing recovery times. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone that degrades muscle, leads to fat gain, and makes you feel stressed out. For a polo player—or any athlete for that matter—being recovered and fresh is vital for enhanced competition performance.
Polo athletes require both Type I and Type II fiber, but when traveling, focus on sport-specific training, not performance training. Endurance training should come by way of sprint intervals or high-intensity circuits that involve sleds or other strongman equipment.
2. Plan your meals based on training times.
Proper nutrition during times of play will allow you to recover faster while facilitating leanness. Ingest an adequate amount of protein daily. Eating a healthy dose of protein at every meal will help you avoid muscle loss. Higher-protein diets enriched with amino acids result in fat loss and muscle gain.
Carbohydrates are required for energy and recovery, especially if you are playing twice in one day. However, I do not recommended ingesting large amounts of carbohydrates if you are not going to be training for longer than 60 minutes at a vigorous pace. Ingest a complex carb meal a few hours prior to competition. Start with 30–50 grams and see how you handle it. After your match, ingest liquid carbs or faster-absorbing carbs to replenish glycogen stores and re-energize for the next match later in the day. If you are not playing a second match, stick to a moderate carb diet for the remaining part of the day to recover and maintain.
Take fish oil for leanness and recovery. Fish oil encourages cellular growth, decreases cortisol and fights inflammation in the body. I suggest 3–5 grams per day with meals.
My recommendation is that all professional athletes have nutritionists who understand athletes and know the energy requirements specific to their sport and training habits. There is no such thing as “one diet fits all” when it comes to sports nutrition.
3. Allocate 45 minutes for resistance training
Think big when it comes to resistance training. Bicep curls are out. During times of play there are generally two categories of training: 1) day of or day before training and 2) day after match training.
Day before or day of training means the body needs to be pushed hard enough to keep the muscle active while not causing muscle soreness that would adversely affect match performance. One application of of pre-match training is focusing on concentric style training. Concentric muscle action occurs when you apply force against an object. For example, when you are doing bench press, the concentric motion occurs when you push the weight up, applying force to the bar. Concentric training utilizes explosive movements such as Olympic weightlifting pulls, battle ropes, medicine ball throws, and plyometrics.
Another application is intensity. Pre-match training is slow, controlled and big. When choosing resistance, shoot for fewer reps and sets and utilize eccentric training, which occurs when the weight is applying force to you. For example, lowering the weight during a bench press is eccentric motion. The eccentric motion should be focused on moderate to light weight, using a tempo style format. In a tempo format, large movements such as bench presses, squats, and pull-ups take longer with the eccentric muscle action. At Functional Muscle Fitness, we train our athletes to take four seconds to go through the eccentric motion. Classic lifts and core exercises, such as squats and planks, allow athletes to move through wide range of motion with optimal blood flow, allowing for recovery and muscular sustainability.
Our athletes perform explosive intense movements in pre-match training with fewer sets while in post-match training we focus on the opposite, slow and controlled movements of eight to twelve repetitions.
4. Allocate soft-tissue recovery sessions
Take care of fascia, the tissue linking bones, muscles, nerves, organs and blood vessels while aiding in-force transmission and movement. In athletes, the fascia layer becomes damaged during both high- and low-intensity training, and tending to the fascia is a vital component in the overall picture of health, performance and recovery.
First, spend time on a foam roller before and after training, as well as each night before going to bed. Take this exercise as seriously as you do the training itself. Second, find and invest in a highly qualified sports massage therapist and/or someone who performs Active Release Technique (ART) therapy. Use their services as often as needed, generally every other day or even every day at times. Third, consider blood circulation therapy. The more blood you push through the damaged fascia, muscles, tendons and ligaments, the faster you heal.
5. Sleep, sleep and more sleep—listen to your body
Sleeping is an athlete’s best friend. If you feel tired, take a nap. Skip the late-night dinners and social gatherings during times of play. Focus on sleeping well every night. Sleep is when your body heals, recovers and grows.
Traveling and playing is one of the most difficult things to get used to. However, for many polo players, that is all they do! Get into a routine you can follow when you are traveling. Coordinate conversations and plans with the head coach and the performance coach. Being organized and disciplined in match play, practice, training and recovery is the difference between a first or second place finish.
Coach Mark Wine is the CEO of Functional Muscle Fitness, Inc. in Concord, California. functionalmusclefitness.com