As anticipation grows for the season opener against the Portland Timbers, Chad Kolarcik—Head of Sports Science & Performance for the Colorado Rapids—and his team of trainers have been working since the close of the 2018 season to get the Burgundy Boys ready for March 2nd.
His mission? To help the players develop their maximum power and strength during the offseason period and then guide and catalyze their respective efforts to build up their fitness and endurance in the preseason months.
These collective efforts center around what and the coaching staff refers as “a long game.” Kolarcik is building upon the foundation that he laid down last year, soon after he arrived from the Seattle Sounders.
According to GM Padraig Smith, Kolarcik was brought to the club to “oversee the Rapids’ medical and sports science departments, including trainers, strength and conditioning personnel and external consultants in order to create more intelligent, individually-tailored training techniques that can improve overall performance and prevent injury. In addition, Kolarcik will also be tasked with ensuring that the club is doing everything in its power to maximize the inherent advantage that comes with playing at altitude.”
Rapids 2018-19 offseason plan: Power and strength
After the 2018 season ended, Kolarcik was in contact with players on an almost daily basis. He counseled each before they departed for their respective offseason hiatus and his one-on-one guidance included “checking out psychologically for the first two weeks. Give your body a break. If you need to do something, stay active, but get away from soccer and the formalities [of professional life].”
Then, Kolarcik started to send daily offseason “power and strength development” workout plans to the players’ phones. His plan included a feedback loop, where the players completed a questionnaire that enabled Kolarcik to gather performance-related data. He could determine if they are making progress at his speed, or not. After a full review, Kolarcik could tweak and optimize the next training segment.
Offseason is arguably the most important time for players to develop strength and power because the work they put in now carries them through the long MLS season.
”The players should be the absolute strongest and most powerful the day they arrive for their preseason medical exams and initial testing,” says Kolarcik. “Because of the nature of the sport, you have to prioritize that quality in the offseason, because they are not training and running as much.”
“During the pre- and regular seasons, we aim to sustain their strength, power, and body mass, all while building high levels of endurance and fitness,” he continues. “If we don’t build those [power] qualities and don’t push the envelope on those qualities in the offseason, it’s extremely difficult to ever attain them in the season because of how long it is... how long they train, and the volume of overall workload during the season is so great.”
During the season, his focus is on maintaining players strength, power, and endurance, plus mitigating injuries.
Rapids 2019 preseason game plan: Fitness and stamina
This year, the club’s second under the leadership of Anthony Hudson, the coaching staff developed a four-site preseason preparation plan that including Colorado, Florida, California, and Nevada. In late January, players arrived in Denver and underwent a battery of “entrance physicals and medical tests” for two days. Kolarcik and his staff also measured for a variety of strength, power, stamina, and fitness benchmarks. They profiled the players and screened them for BMI, hydration, and muscle and skeletal strength before they departed for their first camp in Florida.
From the players that participated in his entire offseason plan, he has a good sense of where they were at from the data that he has been collecting all along.
As for new players that were acquired in the offseason, Kolarcik reached out to his counterparts. “Most teams, with the player’s endorsement, are willing to send player information. It may range from tracking data from training sessions and/or games, as well as data from strength and power tests.”
Collectively, the screening and profiling then allows Kolarcik and staff to develop individualized player plans, complete with target benchmarks or “physical goals,” all based on their data-driven strengths and weakness.
Kolarcik said that “soccer is a team sport, so in some ways, everyone has to do the same thing, but within the framework, we have the opportunity to test and benchmark players, then cater to their needs.” The collective coaching team then starts to push the players to meet the goals. One way they do that during training warm-ups and/or within the tactical practice sessions is by adjusting the training pitch size from small to long-sided.
During preseason, more technology and metrics are brought into play by the sports medicine team. GPS devices and camera systems capture the external amount of physical work that the players do in training sessions and friendlies. The players’ heart rate data is also captured, which reflects the “cost” of the player doing his work.
The data is not exclusively used to quantify fitness. It also figures into determining player fatigue. In monitoring what players achieve on the training and playing fields and how they are responding to the workload, Kolarcik can determine how much fatigue a particular player is experiencing.
Kolarcik compiles the data from training sessions and games daily. He reviews the outcomes with the coaching staff, which helps them develop the practice plans for the following day and keep the players on their individual tracks. In addition to building up a player’s strength, stamina, and wellness, his staff is also working toward mitigating the development injuries, particularly from overworking. The data helps the entire coaching team determine how far they can push a player in training and during a match, whether at sea level or altitude.
Why train at sea level Florida, California, and Nevada, and not train at altitude?
Kolarcik’s response was that “sunshine and heat helps.”
In previous years, at least some preseason training took place in Colorado—weeks were often spent training at 5,280 feet. In addition to using the cold outdoor turf fields at DICK’s Sporting Good Park, the team also trained at the indoor center at UC Boulder and Foothills Sports Arena in west Denver. (The Rapids currently do not have their own first team indoor training facility, with the exception of the one-story Rapids Youth Soccer Club “Eddy” Facility in Aurora.)
Then, the Rapids would typically travel to warmer climates, training and scrimmaging in Arizona, Southern California, and even Hawaii.
But this year, they’re staying at sea level.
”The honest answer... it is not a perfect scenario in terms of being exposed to attitude for an extended time so that we have the physiological adaptation,” says Kolarcik. “So for this preseason, we maximize training in the heat. Given the confines, in some regards, we have to push guys harder and to the edge to tease some of those qualities out, so when we return to altitude, we have better prepared to handle the lower oxygen content in the air. Our thought process and decision-making brought us to the realization that it is not the same as training at altitude, but we can make some interventions within the program to maximize what we can do, since we are training at sea level.”
Everywhere they go, the training staff change the warm-up and training plans daily to keep the players fresh and mentally stimulated. During this preseason, at Kolarcik’s encouragement, the players have gone off-site to relax and have some fun away for the training fields. They have ventured out to laser tag and bowling outings. They have formed small groups and gone out to dine and just socialize in a “novel environment,” to get to know each other and “refresh, mentally.”
He also works in team bonding exercises before, during, and after practice sessions. The heading the ball challenge in the weight room last week made a lasting positive memory for both the young and veteran players.
The Rapids will return to Denver on February 27th, just three days before hosting Portland, which doesn’t leave much time to acclimate to Colorado’s altitude.
But they’re not particularly worried. Kolarcik explained that both anecdotal and research-based evidence supports that it typically takes two weeks for full physiological adaptation to a higher altitude. But if you aren’t able to get there two weeks out, the strategy is to “arrive in market” as close to the start of the game as possible, so not to overly feel the effects of the altitude—especially during the match.
Returning to Denver with enough time to put in a couple training sessions to get over the “initial hump” will also help prepare for opening day as the first 24-48 hours are when most players generally feel the absolute worst.
The Rapids should arrive at peak performance and free of injuries, and just in time to fell the Timbers.