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Remove the cotton wool: Training harder is smarter

Wrapping injured athletes in cotton wool to protect them from further injury does more harm than good according to renowned sports scientist Professor Tim Gabbett.

A common solution to a soft tissue injury is to tell the athlete to sit out and rest for a few weeks, but as Professor Gabbett from the University of Southern Queensland wrote in the leading British Journal of Sports Medicine at the weekend, sidelined athletes are at risk of becoming “chronic rehabbers” unless they load up to higher chronic workloads.

“There used to be a universal mindset of managing players with soft tissue non-contact injuries away from excessive training loads because the fear was players who start training in the early stages of rehabilitation were more likely to break down before returning to competition,” Professor Gabbett said.

“However, the evidence is now telling us that athletes with high training loads have fewer injuries than those training at lower workloads and get back on the field to peak performance quicker.”

Professor Gabbett, who has spent more than 25 years researching training loads to improve sports performance, outlined three key steps needed to change the way performance, medical and coaching staff understand and manage training loads for healthy and injured athletes.

They include using progressive and systematic increases in training loads, scheduling local tissue conditioning within the training cycle with the athlete’s previous injuries in mind and including both tissue loading and sport-specific exercises, like sprinting for sprinters, in an athlete’s rehabilitation program.

Professor Gabbett said that while the early stages of rehabilitation were used to restore local tissue capacity, athletes who continued to train during this period were better protected against further injuries.

“Athletes coming back from injury often say, ‘I’m not training harder, I’m training smarter’ but what the evidence shows us is training harder is training smarter,” he said.

“When sport-specific chronic loads are allowed to decline during rehab, the rehab process may be prolonged, resulting in the athlete being underprepared for the demands of the sport and at risk of subsequent injury.”

Professor Gabbett has worked directly with elite athletes and Olympians, coaches and practitioners across the world, including clubs in the English Premier League, NBA, NFL and Cricket Australia.

The paper, ‘When progressing training loads, what are the considerations for healthy and injured athletes?’ can be read here.

tim gabbett in lecture
Professor Tim Gabbett.