'An elite athlete can regain their rhythm within two weeks'

 Enrique Salinas, fitness coach for the Spanish national basketball team and the Unicaja academy.
Enrique Salinas, fitness coach for the Spanish national basketball team and the Unicaja academy. / SUR
  • Conditioning coaches Enrique Salinas and Javi Peña both stress the importance of eating well during this break but also see some of the benefits of an extended break

The coffee table has been in the corner of the room for weeks now, the exercise bike has taken the place of the armchair and towels have taken over the laundry. Although some have enjoyed setting up a home gym, most elite athletes have had to make compromises.

With the help of contacts or their clubs, some have managed to get hold of machinery to continue their work and, above all, not see their pre-lockdown efforts be undone.

So what effect is lockdown having on elite athletes? Enrique Salinas, conditioning coach for the Spanish national basketball team and the Unicaja academy, believes that negative consequences can be limited and advocates being practical. "If you have the means, if you have a treadmill and a bicycle, I assure you that you won't lose your shape. What you do lose is the sport-specific training. That is, the feel for the ball, the shot, the short bursts. The day you return to the track or the field, that is lost and those specific exercises will be tiring. But your general physical condition, at a cardiorespiratory level, your metabolism... you can maintain it and even increase it if you have the means and some well-thought-out exercises," he explains.

Salinas advises against becoming obsessed with technical work that can only be done effectively on the playing field. "We need to be more pragmatic now. You can put together a list of coordination tasks within a session, but simply to improve aspects such as speed or agility. The other movements are impossible to replicate unless you have a basketball court at home, for example, which few people have," he says.

Calorie management

There are, however, several golden rules to follow during a stoppage such as this. "A player must have an activity schedule for the day. They can't wait around for me to tell them; they have to have a schedule that includes a time to get up, a time for breakfast, training, being with the family and being on the couch watching TV. It is key to have a strict training schedule and not to let players decide based on how they're feeling," says Salinas, who argues that you have to be even stricter with the food.

"I think the biggest oversight will be the food. An elite athlete usually has over 4,500 calories of energy expenditure per day. But now they can't have the same intake because basically they're not consuming it at the moment. Now they will have to limit themselves to 2,000 or 2,500 calories at most," he says.

With regards to muscle strength, Salinas's advice is to be realistic: "Muscle strength in this period is going to decrease a lot. What you can do, however, is control your fat percentage."

Javi Peña agrees. The conditioning coach from Malaga, who is in constant contact with professional footballers, points out: "In situations like these, and more so in people who are not mentally strong, mental stress can be generated. That leads to eating badly or not taking care of themselves."

Peña adds: "Even though there's a lot of uncertainty, they have to prepare as if they were going back to work tomorrow."

And speaking of returning, Enrique Salinas believes that elite athletes "have a great advantage" when it comes to quick adaptation: "This is a skill they have developed over many years as a professional. Just look at how quickly they can recover from injury these days. It's because they have a muscle and joint system that has already been worked on a lot. I don't think it will take more than two weeks for a professional to find their rhythm again."

Positive mindset

Another important ingredient is optimism. For some, this time away is a blessing as it will allow them to return injury-free. "By being forced to have a real rest, injuries are healing properly," says Salinas.

"The problem we have in competitive sport is that we're always against the clock when it comes to injuries. If it takes a normal person around eight or ten weeks to recover from a muscle tear, in professional sport the timeframe is always half that."

The good news now, he says, is that "players who have had serious problems now have time for the tissues to regenerate properly".

Another benefit of this time, according to Salinas, is that players are now working more on the psychological side of training "with meditation, breathing and frustration tolerance techniques, which are put to one side during the campaign and can be done now".

Additionally, Peña stresses the benefits of the "social warmth that you can't have during competitions". "The majority will be able to dedicate more time to family and friends - something they wouldn't normally be able to do between matches and all the travelling."