AFL is one of the most dynamic field sports out there. Athletes of all shapes and sizes, ranging from 160cm forward pockets to 213 cm Ruckman have the opportunity to make an impact in a 360 degree game. It requires skill, strength, incredible endurance but also speed, vertical jump and explosive acceleration. How can you train an athlete to tick every box? The truth is, you probably can’t. We can make an athlete better at each physical trait, however if we want them to run a 2k time trial under 6 mins, plus be an explosive animal, unless they are genetically gifted and an overall natural athlete, chances of developing this “perfect’ athlete are fairly slim. BUT, we can make athletes very good at most of these attributes and excel at one or two of them. These physical traits are dictated from an athletes natural muscle fiber composition which many don't realise be can dictated to suite your game style or simply get an edge over the competition.
Can we Turn an Aerobic Athlete Into an Explosive Athlete?
When we are talking about converting athletes into different machines, it’s important to know the physiological principles of muscle fiber types. Type A is our aerobic fibers, meaning they perform well over long periods of time. Type B is our anaerobic muscle, which is responsible for explosive contractions. Type X is our convertible fiber types! These are the muscle fibers which aren’t aerobic or anaerobic, they are waiting to be trained so we can convert them. Please note, there are also many other combinations of fiber types, but for this article, let’s not dive into heavy academic physiological principles.
Muscle fiber types will determine whether you are an anaerobic, aerobic or all round athlete. The more you have on one side of the spectrum, the harder it is to get to the other. This is a genetic makeup you are given from birth. Not one single person will have 0% Type A and 100% Type B. Usain Bolt still has aerobic muscle fibers, he just has more Type B then most athletes in the world! So the short answer is, you can’t create a complete switch but we can drastically alter the ratio!
How to Train Aerobic AFL Athletes
Now when talking AFL, if we have a naturally gifted aerobic athlete, then this is an extremely valuable physical skill to have. Depending on the coach’s game plan usually these athletes are best suited to a midfield or hard running half back positions. Athletes like these benefit from hard running MAS (Maximal Aerobic Speed) running. Where the aim is to not necessarily make them explosive, but to make their continual speed faster. The faster they can get to the next contest, the greater the chances of them making an impact around the footy.
Strength is important for these players due to the distance that is covered. Strength = Resilience and is the best tool for preventing injury. A player running 15kms a game, plus taking contact over a period of 120 minutes, needs to be strong and durable. Those who aren’t, get injured and it’s not so much from a huge hamstring tear, but from chronic overuse injuries due to a lack of strength in other areas.
Speed is still apart of these athlete’s game and cannot be missed, however it just doesn’t have to be the focus. Sprinting should be performed weekly to ensure their hamstrings remain durable. Sprinting isn’t sprinting unless its 100% efforts either, leave nothing in the tank and you will see the improvements in top end running.
Training the Anaerobic AFL athlete
Of course, to stay fast you need to train fast. The issue with primarily anaerobic athletes in AFL, is they won’t last the game. Coaches need to really manage these athletes, whether that’s with positional changes or regular rest breaks. They won’t have the engine to play a whole game because they don’t have the fibres types to do so! These types of players benefit from high speed 10,20,50m sprints, with repeat efforts of a total of 30 seconds working time. This expends there ATP/PCr system and dips into their glycolytic system which respectively will improve their ability to produce short bursts without oxygen present in the body and then sustain a high speed through rapid ATP generation and metabolite clearance.
The longer the rest periods, the greater the speed adaptation will be. Keep in the back of your mind though, does this athlete need to repeat their efforts in a game. Yes usually, so keeping rest periods to a 1:2, 1:3 ratio will be beneficial. This could look like running 100’s in 14 seconds with 24-48 Seconds rest between bouts.
Strength and Power training is essential for these players as it allows for maximal muscle recruitment. We are trying to convert those type x fibres into type B, and strength training is the perfect way to do so. Rep ranges of 2-5 with weights above 82.5% 1RM will do the trick. Pair this with PAP techniques (post activation potentiation) like a heavy squat into maximal box jump. This will produce greater muscle contraction during explosive movements, meaning you can jump further or sprint faster.
Be mindful that these athletes are at greater risk of larger soft tissue tears. There’s more force being produced by the hamstring when sprinting and faster muscle twitch through the calf, so over doing the speed work can lead to disaster. These athletes need to have a strong stability component to their training week. Stable hips, create a balanced platform to work with. This minimises over compensatory patterns and decreases the risk of injury.Pilates and prehab days are a must and shouldn’t be neglected.
Ultimately, if we are looking to train AFL players, there’s a few variables we must take into account. We need to understand what type of energy system the athlete excels at. This can be performed by testing there 2km time trial and 50-100m sprint. Compare these scores to how the coach wants them to play. Over time and through training consistency, we can alter an athlete's muscle fiber type ratio to sway to an aerobic or anaerobic composition. This can drastically change an athlete's output on the field and give you an edge over the competition.