Gaelic Football Strength & Conditioning: Building a fit GAA player

Gaelic Football is a very physical sport, you need to be able to run, sprint, jump, change direction, kick and take hard hitting tackles for 60/70 mins on a big pitch. In recent years I have noticed clubs at the local and county level taking strength and conditioning more seriously with more money being invested in building on-site gym facilities and bringing in strength and conditioning coaches to work with senior and junior players. This has been great to see the sport developing, however, in the past and even now I have seen a lot of players making the mistake in the way they train, training like bodybuilders instead of athletes. This could be due to a lack of knowledge, facilities and resources towards good strength and conditioning practice and coaches. I’ve seen players build loads of muscle and get really strong which is good to be able to absorb contact and duel with players but solely training like this will ultimately result in decreasing levels of performance from poor movement quality through reduced mobility and not being able to express force explosively, which also increases your risk of injury.

I might be sounding like I’m against lifting weight and building muscle but that's not the case, it's just one piece of the training puzzle to develop into a top athlete. It is important to take a holistic view in regards to your training which means not just lifting heavy weights slow all the time but exposing yourself to a wide range of movement patterns, lifting weight fast and in different directions, moving you body fast in different directions, working on efficient movement quality in sprinting, accelerating, decelerating and changing direction to develop all round athleticism and improve performance on the pitch.  

What fitness components are used in Gaelic Football?

Similarly to the likes of soccer Gaelic Football encompasses a wide range of physical qualities needed to play the sport at a high level. You have to have good cardiovascular endurance to run for 60/70 mins, and recover from repeated high intensity efforts such as sprinting, jumping and changing direction. You need powerful carry out these explosive actions such as sprinting, jumping, kicking and changing direction as it is these high intensity actions which determine key actions such as creating chances, scoring and defending chances are made. You need to be strong to tackle and absorb contact from opposition players.

As mentioned previously you need to take a holistic approach to training that encompasses all these different physical qualities. However, this doesn't mean you have to be working on all of these physical qualities all of the time. What you prioritise will depend on factors like the time of the season, position, age, and individual strengths and weaknesses. This is where periodisation and testing come into play. For example, off-season/pre-season is a time where we typically do a lot of running to build up our cardiovascular fitness, and lift heavy in the gym to build strength as we don’t have to worry too much about recovering for matches. Then as we get closer to the start of the season we may then shift more to lighter, explosive movements in the gym and developing speed and agility on the pitch ready for the start of the season. This might even look slightly different for individual players based on their positions as full forwards may not do as much long distance running but doing more short, sharp sprints as that mainly what they do to lose defenders and create space, whereas midfielders may do more long distance running as they have to get up and down the pitch more. With testing, this could be further individualised based on each player's specific strength and weaknesses, especially in the gym. If you have players who are already really strong but not that powerful they might prioritise power work from the start and vice versa. It’s important to have a long-term plan and know what you’re working on and why based on your physical capabilities and position demands with the sport. I also understand that you may not even have the resources to do testing and have access to a S&C coach but you can get plenty of knowledge through online resources and message me with any questions.

How do I build muscle for GAA?

I have seen a lot of players making the mistake of training like a bodybuilder and putting on so much muscle that it starts to inhibit their mobility and movement quality which leads to decreased levels of performance. Again, I am not against building muscle especially in a contact sport like Gaelic as it can act as a form of ‘body armour’ that will help you absorb force from tackles from opposition players and also produce force too, but it has to be done the right way. I would always say as an athlete you want to be as strong but as lean as possible. Putting on unnecessary weight even in the form of muscle will only decrease your power and speed performance as your mobility and movement quality decreases.

The three building blocks for building muscle are mechanical tension, muscle damage and metabolic stress. For building muscle and strength I would recommend these points. Firstly, stick to compound lifts such as your upper body presses, pull-ups, rows, squats, hinge, and lunges. Multi-joint movements targeting multiple muscle groups to build overall muscle and strength. For muscle hypertrophy you would typically work at a higher rep range of 6-12 reps, whereas for strength you would typically work in a lower 1-5 rep range. However, that doesn’t mean if you only work within 5 reps you won’t build muscle and if you do more than 5 you won’t get stronger, there is some crossover and typically a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle. I recommend that you mix up your rep ranges from time to time and again may be dependent on what you’re trying to achieve, time of season, and individual characteristics. For example in-season you may be just trying to maintain strength and muscle so might microdose your gym training which means low volume in term of sets and reps (1-5 reps) but high intensity (heavy weights, so will at the lower end but off-season then may go higher end to put some muscle on for the new season when you have more time to recover and adapt.

Lastly, and most importantly, it doesn’t matter what rep range you do if you aren’t executing with intensity. I usually recommend working within 2 rep in reserve (RIR). This will help you determine what weight you should be lifting, so when you finish your set you should have only been able to squeeze out 2 more reps. If after you do a set you ask yourself and you know you could’ve done 5 or 6 more reps then you know you need to up the weight. In contrast, if you are maxing out at the end of your set and just getting that final rep out or not being able to complete all of the reps then you know you need to drop the weight. This will enable you to achieve the three factors mentioned at the start to build muscle and strength.

How do I build my stamina for GAA?

As mentioned before, to play at the top level in Gaelic you need to have a good engine to run for 80 mins and recover quickly from high-intensity efforts and also have the ability to repeat high-intensity efforts such as sprinting, jumping, kicking, and changing direction. To build a good engine a popular method is maximal aerobic speed (MAS) training. MAS  is quite simply the minimal running velocity at which VO2 max occurs – otherwise known as the velocity at VO2 max (vVO2 max). In other words, it is the lowest speed at which maximum oxygen uptake (VO2 max) occurs. Research has shown that the greater the running demands of the sport, the greater the MAS required for athletes in that sport to compete, especially at the highest level and those with a larger MAS have also been shown to perform better during a game.

Another benefit of MAS training is that it is highly individualised based on your score and can create really specific running programs. What you need to do first is determine what your MAS is. There’s a number of ways you can do this but the one I use is a 1k time trial. Once you get your time from that you then calculate your speed into metres per second (m/s) and that’s your MAS. With this you then can create specific MAS interval runs where you have to cover a specific distance in the set time. Typically you either go short or long intervals. I typically use short intervals such as 30 on/30 off working at 110% of MAS and slowly increasing it over the weeks. For example, if my MAS is 4.67 m/s and I want to calculate how far I need ro run in each 30s interval at 110% I first need to calculate what 110% of my MAS is which would be 5.14 m/s. Then to calculate distance you simply multiply it by 30 which gives you 154m per 30s.

How can I improve my GAA agility?

When working to improve agility there’s a few key factors involved; Linear and lateral deceleration, re-acceleration, horizontal force production and hip and trunk stability. Being able to decelerate effectively and efficiently is vital in change of direction performance and also reduces your risk of injury. The quicker you can decelerate and shift your body in a different direction and re-accelerate will lead to improved change of direction performance which could lead to losing your marker and creating a yard of space or intercepting a pass.

One of the main issues I see people struggle with when changing direction is trunk and hip stability and the inability to shift their weight and rotate effectively, especially in Gaelic Football when having to perform these actions while holding a ball. To help improve this some exercises might involve deceleration exercises such as lunges, drop landings, and hops and bounds. Acceleration exercises such as lateral drives, lateral skip variations, lateral push-offs, lateral and rotational horizontal jumps, making sure you’re getting your body in the correct position and applying force in the right direction. Cutting drills working at different degrees on change of direction and putting in different constraints to help develop trunk and hip stability such as holding something overhead and in front of your chest.

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