Getting an edge on gameday is what every team and athlete aims to achieve and the gameday primer can be a powerful addition to a sports performance program to help achieve this. The gameday primer involves a short hit of high output training as a means to enhance performance later in the day, at game time. The benefits from such priming activities are potentiation of the neuromuscular system, acute hormonal effects and psychological benefits.
The idea of gameday priming is not new nor is it innovative but it is growing in interest and implementation across sports. This article will outline the underpinning evidence for the gameday primer, the principles that should guide the creation of such workouts, as well as flexible examples for gameday primers for a variety of team-based sports and circumstances.
While the evidence for gameday primers is strong, in many cases cultural resistance within sports can be a major obstacle to the implementation of such preparation methods. This article will address these and offer strategies to overcome them.
Typically, the principal purpose of gameday priming training sessions has been to elicit a potentiation effect of neuromuscular performance in the subsequent game or competition event1. There is a strong body of research demonstrating the efficacy of this approach. The training stimulus provides a delayed potentiation of the neuromuscular system1 once enough time is allowed for acute fatigue to dissipate. This research has shown enhanced neuromuscular performance using a variety of training types and with a range of athlete groups across time periods from 6-32 hours2,3,4,5. With this in mind, the gameday primer can be executed on the day of competition or even the day before.
These scientific studies typically have similar methodologies. Baseline neuromuscular qualities are initially assessed, followed by the priming training stimulus to be investigated. Then, following a specific time-frame, the neuromuscular qualities are assessed again in comparison to a control condition where no priming training stimulus has taken place. While it is very difficult to assess true gameday performance, researchers use neuromuscular performance tests such as jump testing, speed testing or strength testing as a proxy for the type of physical characteristics that would be demonstrated in games or competition.
For example, a simple low-volume, high-intensity explosive training session consisting of only loaded squat jumps resulted in a 5% increase in jump performance, an almost 10% increase in reactive strength performance and >10% increase in rate of force development measures 24 hours after the priming stimulus. Some benefits were also observed 48 hours after the priming stimulus but these effects were not as powerful as at 24 hours5. Under the control condition (no priming session undertaken) no changes in neuromuscular performance were observed.
In one of the most thorough examinations of priming effects, Professor Mark Russell led an all-star sport science cast to examine the effect of different morning priming exercise types on afternoon performance in elite level rugby players3. The research looked at the priming effect of high intensity cycling sprint training (6x6s maximum efforts), upper body strength training (5x10 bench press @ 75% 1RM) and sprint training (6x40m sprints). These priming sessions were conducted 5 hours before the neuromuscular performance testing. Their markers of performance enhancement were sprint testing, jump testing and reaction time and they also assessed changes to testosterone and cortisol levels. All three priming strategies enhanced at least one marker of afternoon performance in comparison to a passive control group. For example, upper body strength training significantly increased testosterone levels and sprint performance in subsequent afternoon testing sessions. Sprint training in the morning, significantly improved sprint and jump performance in the afternoon and had the largest positive effect on testosterone production. Importantly, none of the morning priming activities degraded afternoon performance in any way.
Russell’s research used reasonably conservative priming activities. While high in intensity, the relative training volumes were low – 5 sets of 1 strength training exercise or just 6 repetitions of cycling sprints. However, some research designs have pushed the envelope and used more aggressive strategies such as strength training to fatigue2 and combined speed and strength sessions including work up to 100% 1RM6. These more aggressive priming strategies improved afternoon performance in explosive activities such as shot-throwing performance2, sprints, jumps and strength tests6 in a range of 4-6 hours from the priming stimulus.
Some studies have used “combined” approaches of sports specific priming activities and strength training type activities. For example, a coupling of varied intensity swim sessions and dryland resistance training including tuck jumps, push-ups and ballistic medicine ball work was observed to stimulate faster swim time-trial performance and adjustments in race strategy in swimmers7.
Across the literature, the premise here is a simple one – athletes whose neuromuscular systems are “primed” should be able to express higher levels of force, power and speed in the competition environment.
Some of the cited research studies have also shown an interesting possible effect of priming sessions on hormonal profiles on competition day – this may play a role in the performance enhancement that is observed. Athletes’ perception of energy and their hormonal regulation follow a circadian rhythm. There is a natural rise and fall of “readiness” throughout the day which is in line with our bodyclock -it is somewhat guided by the time of day and our exposure to light. The hormone testosterone is a significant predictor of performance from activities ranging from rugby union to chess6,12. Under normal conditions testosterone is observed to decline across the day. This presents athletes involved in evening competitions or games with a specific problem – they are competing at a time when their hormonal profile may not be optimised.
A number of the previously cited authors have also measured hormonal levels alongside their neuromuscular performance measures3,6. In Russell’s 2015 research, all interventions (sprinting, sprint cycling, strength training) significantly attenuated the decline in testosterone across the day. Christian Cook’s research found that a strength focused priming session had a potent effect on offsetting the circadian decline in testosterone levels6. So the priming stimulus may be a particularly potent tool to use on gamedays with late kick-offs to help overcome the natural hormonal decay. It is likely (but not definitively proven) that this hormonal stimulation is one factor that contributes to the enhanced neuromuscular performance observed after priming sessions. It is also possible that this hormonal effect may be linked to an improved psychological approach to competition.
Higher levels of testosterone have been associated with athletic motivation and “confidence to compete”8. The gameday environment is often one that does not encourage a positive physical and mental state – especially away from home. Athletes often lay around in hotel rooms in unfamiliar environments, conserve energy to the nth degree and are far less physically activity than usual or than they would be in home-game situations. The away-game gameday experience can often be one of inactivity, lethargy and this can lead to rumination. Such rumination can exacerbate pre-competition anxiety or contribute to pessimistic thinking for those athletes who may be predisposed to it – not ideal in the build up to an important sporting event9. Distracting, enjoyable physical activities could possibly break this cycle of lethargy, rumination and anxiety and stimulate a more productive physical, hormonal and psychological environment.
The practical effect of this was illustrated by a study on competitive weightlifters by some of the pioneers of modern strength training research – Andrew Fry, Mike Stone, John Thrush and Stephen Fleck10. Teenage weightlifters performed a low-volume, moderate-to-high intensity priming session in the morning before a simulated weightlifting competition. Maximal jump performance and mood status was also assessed. A sub-group of “responder” athletes showed significantly greater weightlifting and jump performance in the simulated competition. These “responders” to the priming session demonstrated much higher typical anxiety levels suggesting athletes who experience high levels of anxiety may particularly benefit from priming strategies. The challenge is that high-anxiety individuals may also be those who are less willing to participate in such activities9.
This leads to a wider issue when trying to introduce priming sessions in the sporting environment. Despite a strong base of research indicating benefits, one of the primary obstacles to implementing a gameday primer is the cultural tradition within a sport. In many field sports and amongst many athletes there is simply a tradition of doing very little on game day and hyper-conserving energy. It takes a brave coach, athlete and team to break away from this tradition but in a world of high-level preparation and performance, it takes breaks from the norm to find these points of difference and embrace them. The common arguments against such gameday primer sessions are typically related to fatigue or injury risk. These can be challenging perceptions to overcome. A couple of strategies can be implemented.
One approach is a “little by little” tactic. In this case, the process can start to be implemented by using very low risk (and probably low efficacy) sessions to introduce the idea. For example, many players, teams and sports coaches will be open to doing mobility work on game day as its perceived to be zero risk, non-fatiguing and beneficial to game day performance or injury prevention. The irony is that this approach is probably far less beneficial than some of the higher intensity approaches we’ve outlined in the article. This “little by little” approach is used to establish the routine of some activity on game day. Once established, the content then can be nudged along session by session. Cognitive reaction games can be added at the beginning of the session to introduce a fun or competitive element. A small number of maximal effort countermovement jumps can be added to the end of the session as a “wake-up” following the low level mobility work. Press-ups or ballistic press-ups are easily added as a progression to any mobility exercises done in prone positions. Medicine ball throws or slams are often not seen as threatening or “risky” as heavy strength training yet when done with maximal intent they are likely to be effective large motor unit recruiters. By manipulating the content session by session the coach can end up in a position where the work is now much closer to true priming activities. It’s a slow process, but cultural change takes time.
Another approach is to start by introducing the priming activity away from gameday. While the day before the game may not be quite as effective as the game day primer, there is evidence that this can still have a positive impact on neuromuscular performance5. For example, during my time in professional rugby a short, sharp strength/power training session was often utilised the day before the game. Such a session consisted of:
Such a session was of low volume and far enough away from the game to be seen as non-threatening. But the associated feelings of power, speed and readiness in the following short-duration rugby session begins to join the dots between short hits of power/strength work and subsequent positive feelings and performance in the sport itself. Once the “day before” priming session becomes established it is easier to encourage athletes to push this to the gameday itself to reap the rewards of the potentiation effect that is on offer.
When trying to break this tradition and enforce cultural change, in my opinion it’s important not to be dogmatic with the implementation. The most powerful training interventions are often those in which athletes have a large degree of autonomy. The athlete is actively involved the training program design and implementation. Gameday is the day on which the athlete must be the most in-control and responsible for their behaviours and performance. It’s the day on which competitions are won or lost, reputations are made or livelihoods are lost. Players must take ownership of their preparation for the event. A persuasive but flexible approach is best. Lead players to the option of the gameday primer but give them options and flexibility in how that session looks. Create flexible exercise menus with numerous options. The research has shown that very varied training types can all have positive effects. Don’t insist on the session being completed – give players the option to get their favoured preparation done outside of the prescribed work. If a player wants to use the time to focus more on mobility or mindfulness, let them. Over time, if an intervention works, athletes themselves will be the best advocates.
The practicalities of conducting strength training around gameday can be challenging. But reassuring for coaches and athletes is the fact that work done either 6 hours or the day before the game has a beneficial effect. This means that the gameday priming plan can be fluid and adaptable depending on gameday logistics and available facilities. In the home-game environment, an array of training types can be used as athletes will often have access to their typical high performance training environment. When a team is away from home, or staying in hotels, often well-equipped strength facilities are not available.
However, there are many session types which can achieve positive outcomes with minimal equipment or expense. A “gameday primer kit” could contain basics such as a heavy medicine ball, high-resistance power bands, a landmine attachment or a shot put and all fit in one kit bag and weigh less than an airline baggage allowance. Such kit is enough to perform high-force resisted jumps, high-velocity assisted jumps, throws and loaded rotational power work in even the most ill-equipped hotel gym or team room space.
Logistics and practicalities will play a role in dictating the format of the gameday primer but the content should predominantly be informed by evidence-based and practice-based principles. Considering the current body of research alongside my own experience and the experience of a number of elite coaches I have discussed this with, here are the principles I would follow when establishing the content of a gameday priming session:
Considering these principles, a number of training approaches can be taken to the gameday primer. I tend to think of two predominant factors when devising the priming training stimulus. How aggressive or conservative do we want to be with our training approach? What equipment do we have available for use? The sessions outlined below can cover high or low equipment availability and aggressive or conservative training approaches.
The outlined priming sessions above are very much just illustrative examples. As long as coaches and athletes are generally working within the guiding principles then any number of training sessions and exercise combinations can be used. A further benefit of the approach is as an on-going means of accumulating strength and power work consistently throughout the season. Many team based sports have increasingly congested fixture lists. Opportunities to stimulate strength and power development are limited. The athlete, or team, who consistently utilises a strength or power based priming session throughout the competitive season will likely microdose a greater accumulation of training hours than an opposition who does not. While there are significant acute effects of the primer, there are also long term physical development benefits so the training content should be in line with the individual athlete’s development needs.
We have outlined acute neuromuscular, hormonal and psychological benefits of the gameday primer as well as ongoing physical development benefits. While the content of primer training sessions can be varied and flexible, it must be guided by evidence based principles with the individual athlete at core of all exercise prescription and decision making. Allowing the athlete to determine the training content is likely to further maximise the perceived benefits of such an approach. Cultural obstacles can be difficult to overcome in some sports and teams but coaches should be patient and accept that change takes time and can happen incrementally. While others are scratching around for “marginal gains”, the primer provides a unique opportunity to enhance performance on gameday and is already widely used by progressive, elite athletes and teams.
Author: Eamonn Flanagan
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