Strength & Conditioning in the GAA Split Season
Introduction of the Split Season
In early 2021, a motion was passed at GAA congress stating that the GAA season would be split “between inter-county and club by stipulating that the All-Ireland senior finals should be played on or before the 29th Sunday of the year.” Effectively, the first half of the calendar year is now reserved for the inter-county game, while club championships take place in the second half of the year.
Below, Setanta & Bishopstown GAA’s Ian Jones reviews the changes in season structure from the perspective of a club S&C coach.
Changes for the S&C Coach
In the traditional structure of the GAA season, clubs would ordinarily play 1-2 championship games in April followed by a period of anywhere between 3-5 months before the next outing, depending on the success of the inter-county team. While league and divisional competitions continued, there was a need for multiple peaks throughout the year.
This posed multiple challenges for S&C coaches, including:
- Uncertainty of fixture dates, not allowing for proper planning and periodisation.
- Constant disruption of training plans and physical development blocks.
- An unavailability of club’s intercounty players to train and develop technically, tactically, and physically in line with a club teams game model.
- A lack of a substantial offseason & preseason for the club player for down time & physical development windows.
The new structures now provides a different outlook for GAA S&C coaches:
- A more consistent, periodized approach is now available to best plan a team & individuals’ development across the season & multiple seasons.
- A club player may now complete a full preseason in January & February.
- League & challenge game period from March through June.
- Championship season from July/August through October.
- Offseason in November & December.
Maximising the New GAA Season Structure
When looking at the physical characteristics required for Gaelic Games, we can come up with a long list; speed, agility, strength, power, aerobic capacity, repeat sprint ability, game fitness and more.
With limited contact time with players, in comparison with the inter-county game, a question to ask is – how does the club strength and conditioning coach maximise the new season structure for the physical development of the team player?
One such approach would be the ‘train everything all the time’ approach. Vertical Integration (or concurrent emphasis training) is the concept of training multiple physical qualities at the same time, while placing an emphasis on improving a certain quality that may be lacking or of higher importance in each period. This in turn allows the de-emphasized qualities to be maintained. The concept is most often credited to Charlie Francis and his work with world class track & field athletes.
When looking at the physical characteristics of the GAA player outlined above, in any given phase all of these aspects may be trained. However, we will prioritise certain areas which we feel need to be improved at that given time while maintaining others.
Rationale for the Vertical Integration Model of Training
Like many field sports, Gaelic Games are chaotic in nature and incorporate multiple physical qualities simultaneously. As an S&C coach, it is our responsibility to support and help improve on-pitch performance. Therefore, it would be negligent of us to ignore a key physical ability for an extended period of time.
Due to the nature of the club season, where there are games from March through to October, all of these factors are in use during training and matches. The addressing of a specific quality that may be lacking can aid in performance improvements for both the individual and team.
Implementing the vertical integration model also allows us to use concepts from the more traditional linear periodization and then individualise a program for a given team or person. And finally, and possibly most important, this model ensures we do not lose improvements made earlier in the training year by keeping a small strand of each physical quality present consistently.
Implementing the Vertical Integration Model of Training
Below, we look at the process of implementing the Vertical Integration model of training throughout the GAA season. For this purpose, we have segmented the season into the phases outlined below.
Pre-Season > League > Pre-Championship > Championship > Off-Season
While teams will have now completed the Pre-Season phase and have progressed into the League phase, considerations for both phases will be outlined below for future reference.
This is an ideal time to emphasise and develop muscular endurance, hypertrophy & lay foundational training blocks for longevity in the season. Small periods of time spent on speed and power can also be implemented throughout this phase to maintain those physical qualities. The offseason prior to coming into preseason individuals may have spent a large quantity of time on speed and technical elements that are more effecient to work on away from the club team GAA training setting.
Using warm-ups to reinforce running mechanics and as technique-based sessions for speed, COD & agility in small blocks is ideal at this stage and will continue in this pattern throughout the year. The later part of the pre-season introduces higher-time spent in game-based conditioning to prepare for league games.
- Key Training Emphasis (Gym): Strength Endurance / Hypertrophy
- Key Training Emphasis (Pitch): Volume Accumulation / Aerobic Capacity
For this phase, the emphasis will be on strength while transitioning into power-based training. This phase also allows for periodic top-ups of our aerobic capacity and mainting gym volume with accessory work at the end of strength/power sessions. Depending on the individual county, league games may be happening weekly. These will act as a conditioning tool. Isolated blocks of running capacity can be introduced where needed.
- Key Training Emphasis (Gym): Strength/Power
- Key Training Emphasis (Pitch): Repeat Sprint Ability
For this phase, it is important for coaches to assess the most pressing needs of the team in the month prior to the competition/championship phase. There will likely be top-ups of aerobic capacity, with large amounts of time spent on game-based fitness.
- Key Training Emphasis (Gym): Power/Strength
- Key Training Emphasis (Pitch): Game Based Fitness
Within the competition phase, there will be a high focus on game-readiness, power and speed. Maintenance of previously developed factors should also be included here.
Consideration should be given between high- and low-minute players. Players that are in the high-minute category should maintain fitness through the game. Others should spend time with isolated top-up blocks where required and continuing physical development to be ready when called upon.
- Key Training Emphasis (Gym): Power/Speed
- Key Training Emphasis (Pitch): Game Based Fitness
This phase allows for reflection, reviewing and assessing the team and individual needs from the year. The latter stages of this phase allows for focus on general capabilities at the individual level, before returning to team training.
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