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Coronavirus: Premier League clubs facing challenge to keep players fit in isolation

Workout videos, dietary plans and avoiding boredom... how can Premier League clubs keep their players fit and healthy during coronavirus isolation?

Alexandre Lacazette works out on an exercise bike

The coronavirus outbreak has not just shut down football but many training grounds too.

Up and down the Premier League, players who were gearing up for the season finale have been sent into isolation mode as they await news on when - or if - the campaign will resume.

It presents major challenges for their clubs. Footballers are not exempt from the guidelines around social distancing and working from home, meaning coaching staff who normally monitor their players' every move at close quarters are now tasked with keeping them fit from afar.

Carefully planned training schedules have been discarded for now, replaced by individual fitness programmes to be followed remotely, but these are uncharted waters for Premier League clubs and their players.

'Clubs will be really worried'

"Every club tries to get their players to a certain level of fitness at certain points of the season," Damian Roden, a high-performance consultant for the Premier League, tells Sky Sports.

"At this stage, when we're at the business end, you would hope that your players are in their prime, so to have such a big gap without training now, the clubs will be really worried.

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"When players are in training every day, you can see what they eat, you can see how they apply themselves, you can get feedback from all the technology that they wear, you can tell if they've had a bad sleep and you can intervene on a daily basis to get them at their peak for the game.

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"But now, the clubs have got to trust that the players will follow the recommendations that they have put in place. That means eating what they should eat, going to sleep at the same time and avoiding boredom...

"It might even mean avoiding sitting on their Xboxes and PlayStations for long periods of time, in positions that can be compromising.

"They are reliant on players following what they recommend and of course they will be worried about not being able to affect that."

Instead of their usual sessions out on the training pitch with their team-mates, many Premier League players, including Arsenal's Alexandre Lacazette and Chelsea's Tammy Abraham, have uploaded pictures and videos to social media showing them undertaking cardiovascular work on treadmills and exercise bikes at their homes.

"Most players will have those resources available," adds Roden, who has previously worked for QPR and Stoke. "Premier League teams will have things that they do prior to training. Each player will have a series of exercises that they will have been doing for some time. They should know how to do all those exercises and carry those on."

Jo Clubb, a sport scientist who has worked with Chelsea and Brighton, adds: "Online or app-based workout programmes are commonplace in professional football.

"Whether teams normally only use them in the offseason period, or already use them to deliver in-season gym programmes, that software may provide an ideal platform to push training programmes to athletes remotely.

"The strength and conditioning community is also answering the call by posting online workouts and suggestions for keeping fit at home. However, I'm certain that Premier League teams will prefer their players to stick to their internal programmes, owing to their ability to design each specifically for the individual's needs, based on their position and injury history."

'Field-based side of it is more difficult'

Jordan Henderson and Andy Robertson in Liverpool training
Image: Liverpool have closed their Melwood training ground as a precaution

What's more problematic, though, is replicating the rigours of a typical training session out on the grass in the confines of a player's home.

"The challenge for the clubs is to mirror the kind of work the players would be doing if they were following their usual training schedule, but the field-based side of it is obviously more difficult," says Roden.

"If they've got access to a field, or an outdoor area, they can replicate the runs they would make in a seven-v-seven game, a four-v-four game or an 11-v-11 game. They could, say, do four blocks of six-minute runs, which is what they would typically do if they were taking part in a seven-v-seven game on that particular day.

"But it's very difficult to maintain sharpness. You can try to mirror the demands of training as best you can, but it's very difficult to replicate all the reactions and spontaneous patterns of games that they would get in training. There's no substitute for playing those games with team-mates."

Clubb agrees. "Given that football is an intermittent running sport, field-based exercise is necessary to maintain fitness levels," she says. "Some teams will have data from field tests collected earlier in the season that they can use to prescribe individualised running drills.

"But those drills will not be able to fully replicate the intensity of unpredictable, reactive drills involving groups of players and therefore the demands of velocity-change movements, such as acceleration, deceleration, and changes of direction. It is also difficult to replicate the same motivating atmosphere of the team environment."

It is therefore inevitable that, even with individually-tailored training programmes for each player, their fitness levels and match sharpness will drop during their time in isolation.

"A level of what we call 'detraining' is almost guaranteed in this situation given the insufficient training stimulus footballers will be exposed to," says Clubb. "Repeated-sprint ability, which is crucial in football performance, can be detrimentally affected by just a two-week break, for example.

"There will be a reduction in their cardiovascular capacity; that is, the ability of the heart and lungs to deliver oxygen to the muscles, mostly owing to reduced blood volume. And while strength levels may be maintained a little longer, declines may be seen generally from four weeks onwards."

According to Roden, the change in workload brought about by the break in training will also have a knock-on effect on the dietary requirements of the players.

"The energy demands when you're not training and not playing games are a lot lower, even when you're trying to keep yourself fit," he says. "So the players have got to be especially mindful of what they put in their bodies.

"Carbohydrate intake, for example, should be reduced. Protein should be maintained. They will need lots of salad and fruit and vegetables. That will help to maintain lean mass and fat mass rather than gain weight."

'Uncertainty is the biggest challenge'

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What adds to the complexity of it all, of course, is the uncertainty around when exactly the season will resume and when the players will be able to return to their normal training routines.

Many Premier League clubs hope to reconvene at their training grounds in the next week, but coronavirus precautions could yet be ramped up and it already appears unlikely that the Premier League campaign will resume as planned on the weekend of April 4.

"Today's training programmes are subject to more planning and forethought than ever," says Clubb. "For example, after a summer with an international tournament, we would have different pre-season plans for every possible stage our players may get knocked out at. The uncertainty going forward is one of the biggest challenges facing clubs."

"This period is a little bit like the off-season for players in terms of the drop in workload," adds Roden. "Normally, during that period, players finish the season, get six or so weeks off, then have to come back to training at a certain level. You then try to build them up to the point you want them at for the start the following season. What's different now is that you haven't got any clear start or end points to work to."

It is just another factor which adds to the complexity of an already difficult situation. In normal circumstances, Premier League clubs would be midway through their preparations for another crucial round of fixtures. A return to normality, however, still looks a long way off.

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