Updated: Apr 2, 2019
We all know the feeling: 7 days before competition and we all wish we could bubble-wrap our athletes. Injuries occurring the week of competition have always been notoriously high. The question is: how much of this is preventable, and why exactly is there such a high concentration of injury at a time when athletes should be at their peak?
Stress, fatigue, and higher probability - caused by the number of stunts performed overall - are the obvious culprits. However, If we dig a little deeper, we come to truly understand what is causing a large number of these injuries, and how we can help prevent them.
If you heard that a marathon runner was preparing for a big race by running 200 meters, you would probably think they are nuts. Yet we ask the same thing of our athletes, every single season. Our athletes should be training for the equivalent of an 800 meter race (i.e. our 2.5 min cheer full-out), but instead, throughout the season they run the equivalent of 100 meter sprints (stunt & tumble sequences). Only a month or so before the competition do full-outs start to appear. Then, we ask them to take part in a marathon just a week before their big race. In the last week of cheer training, practice times multiply by at least 3!
In athletics, runners have to specialise in one type of event: sprint, mid, or long-distance. This is because all three require very different body types and training (see the video below). Yet, competitive cheerleaders train as “sprinter” equivalents, and are then expected to sustain “marathon” conditions the week before competition, which often comes at a price.
This training schedule is confusing for an athlete’s body, and here is why:
1) Athletes have poorly trained to increase their VO2max (the ability for their bodies to utilise oxygen efficiently during aerobic respiration). This is essential for completing full-outs and for sustaining weekends of 8+ hours of practice. The ability to utilise oxygen requires gradual and consistent training, which facilitates an easier and safer transition from 2 hour practices to 4+ hour cheer marathons.
2) Cheer athletes predominantly have fast-twitch muscles (for short-term, explosive movements that thrive in anaerobic conditions), as opposed to slow-twitch muscles (for long-term, endurance exercises that require oxygen). Once they arrive to the weekend of competiton, their fast-twitch muscles are rarely accustomed to the amount of endurance required for athletes with more slow twitch muscles - the kind of endurance they need for the competition.
3) Cheerleaders are not used to having their heart rate above 80% for more than 30 seconds at a time, which is a completely different experience than having it above 80% for 2.5minutes, repeatedly for 3+ hours. This sudden strain can cause dizziness, hyperventilation, and even heat stroke, when their bodies reach higher temperatures than they are accustomed to.
4) Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) and Lactic Acid breakdown. For instance, Long training on a Saturday could build up more lactic acid and cause DOMS. Athletes would then reach a blood lactic threshold which is beyond their usual capabilities. The next few days they simply cannot meet the energy demands of training until the lactic acid has broken down. DOMS will also cause tenderness in the muscles, and discomfort, which makes it harder for athletes to perform technique, and could induce injury.
5) Repeated impact and excessive strain on the joints, can cause them to be weaker when performing for long periods of time. Points 1-4 above will only inhibit this further. There is research that suggests that even 2 hours of intense cheer practice may be too much for the joins to sustain safely (published by the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy).
Let’s not forget, of course, that Coca cola and popcorn is not fuel-efficient food for sports. The food that cheerleaders eat, especially the week of and at competition, is one of the biggest culprits of the body failing during that time. If cheerleaders are serious about being considered athletes, they should start following the example of gymnasts, or any other competitive sports, and how they treat their bodies during peak times of effort. Gym owners should also take a stand in regards to what food and drink are made available to athletes during training and at competition, given that venues are notorious for supplying junk food (which is meant for the spectators, not athletes).
Changing the way we schedule and train our athletes is a big ask. The current training format and schedule is how industry has always been, and change is always difficult. It's been done this way for decades, yet we see more and more athletes being injured the week of (or worse AT) the competition. This seems to be a problem that we universally accept within our industry, but there is enough evidence to suggest that prevention is perfectly achievable. The downside is that we need to re-think some of our training priorities, and it needs to start in September. By January, it's already too late because it requires a gradual process of physical adaptation.