NCAA student-athletes faced off against their first opponents of the fall season in the last two weeks.
They’ve lined up against intense August heat, following a game plan of proper hydration and rest periods to avoid heat exhaustion. They’ve matched up with conditioning drills as their bodies readjusted to the competitive physical activity. While the first games remained weeks away, managing these first steps – away from crowds and cameras — are critical to their success in those arenas.
Football lays out specific guidelines for how those early practice sessions should be managed. Regulations detail the number of on-field practices allowed each day, the length of those sessions, at which points of the preseason certain pieces of equipment can be worn, and even the frequency of multiple-practice days. Those policies are designed to protect the student-athlete’s well-being and avoid exposure to a rapid acceleration of activity before their body’s physical conditioning is ready to handle the load.
Other fall sports face similar challenges, though. But they do not have specific policies to guide them. They must design appropriate practice plans that address heat, hydration, conditioning and rest periods which balance the needs for protecting the health of their student-athletes while at the same time preparing them for competition. As schools search for the best approaches, the NCAA advises its members to follow these practices:
• Develop a preseason conditioning plan: Coaches are advised to set aside a period of six to eight weeks for preseason conditioning, during which the type, frequency and intensity of exercises is progressively increased, and ample recovery time is provided. During the first three days of preseason workouts, practices should be limited to one session per day that lasts no more than two hours. This gives student-athletes enough time to steadily build up their endurance without the risks of overtraining. Student-athletes are encouraged to prepare for preseason activities on their own with a progressive conditioning plan at least four weeks before the start of practices.
• Limit daily practice sessions: After the initial three-day acclimatization period, practice sessions should be limited to no more than two per day, and schools should avoid scheduling multiple practice sessions on consecutive days. Instead, multiple practice sessions should be scheduled every other day, with a single workout in between, until the academic year begins. Each practice should last no more than two hours.
• Plan for a heat acclimatization period: The NCAA advises that student-athletes should gradually increase exposure to hot, humid summer weather for a minimum of 10 to 14 days at the beginning of preseason activities. Activity during each exposure to heat should gradually increase in intensity and duration until the exercise is comparable to competition. Practices should be scheduled during cooler times of the day during periods of intense heat.
• Take time off between practices: On days when multiple practice sessions are held, schools are advised to provide at least three hours of continuous recovery time between the end of the first practice and the start of the next. During that time, student-athletes should not attend meetings or engage in physical activities related to their sport.
• Walk-through after a break: Walk-through sessions are not considered practices during the preseason, but just like multiple-practice days, schools are advised to give student-athletes a rest period of at least three hours between practice and the walk-through. During the walk-through, student-athletes should not wear any equipment related to the sport or perform conditioning exercises.
• Take a day off: Schools are advised not to conduct practice sessions for more than six consecutive days. This includes any organized physical activity related to the sport, such as warm-ups, stretching, scrimmaging, weight lifting, fitness testing, conditioning, Pilates, cool downs and non-medically related rehabilitation or captain’s practices.