Updated: Aug 25, 2019
Photography by Emmanuel Berthe
Hands up if you or your team struggle with getting through full-outs 🙋🏻 or does anyone else notice how many more injuries happen in the last 30min of training or the week before competition? 🚑
You are not alone.. this is something that every team goes though.. but it's not because everybody struggles that it should be accepted! It seems mystifying when all the skills we have worked for so hard during the season crumble down into a hot mess when we put them all together. Even though this is a topic that all athletes and coaches struggle with, there is little information about this.
Event though fear and nerves can play a large part in the interference of motor skills, whether consciously or unconsciously. If the body is not prepared for the physical intensity of a 2.5min cheer routine, stress levels can rise dangerously especially if athletes are having doubts in their own ability. Athletes need to be 100% confident that their body is capable of withstanding what you are asking of them.
A cheerleading routine can be compared to running the 1000m hurdles, but our intensive cheer competition weekends combining hours of training is more like running the marathon. The message of this video explains the basic principles of how our bodies use oxygen to build better endurance, regardless of the "distance" or type of running. These same principles can be applied to cheerleading: the key is giving the body enough TIME in order to adapt and increase its ability to endure more.
The sections in this article build on these exact same principles, to explain why endurance training is KEY to every cheer team. Athletes that are trained for endurance will perform much more consistently, find putting full routines together and repeating skills over and over with ease. Of course, this will also help decrease injuries closer to competitions: because they body will have gradually adapted to the change in physical demands.
1. SPENDING AS MUCH TIME BUILDING UP ATHLETE'S STAMINA & ENDURANCE IS JUST AS IMPORTANT AS TRAINING THEIR SKILLS.
Skill and endurance are two parts that make a whole, one cannot exist without the other. The body is simultaneously dealing with stress, muscle fatigue and shortness of breath: a disastrous cocktail for execution. Thankfully, all these 3 things are easily trainable. The problem? Most teams train the entire season to master individual skills or sections and struggle enormously with hitting full-outs. Why? Because they even though they train skills, they fail to train the body for STRESS, ENDURANCE and CARDIOVASCULAR FITNESS.
Training an athlete's stamina and endurance gradually from the start of the season is so important, but even if you only have 1 month to go - you can still make huge improvements.
2. BALANCING AEROBIC & ANAEROBIC RESPIRATION
Let’s start by understanding the impact a full-out cheer routine has on our body. Even though these measurements are currently untested in cheer, we are using a similar sport to compare it to: the 1000m hurdles which requires both endurance and explosive energy for about 2.5minutes.
The key thing to know is that during a full-out we start off by getting our energy from ANAEROBIC respiration, and then gradually transitions through to AEROBIC after about 60 seconds (this my vary with each athlete). ANAEROBIC respiration uses AVAILABLE stored energy to get us moving as rapidly as possible before we switch on our "oxygen engines". Here is the sciency bit:
The "kick-off" energy that we have is anaerobic respiration: we have it because it's what allow us to react fast to imminent danger, like running away from hungry beasts or sprinting for the bus because god forbid you'll be late for cheer practice! In cheer-speak, it's what gets you through the first minute of your routine.
Your real engine requires OXYGEN to run: this is AEROBIC respiration. Because it takes a while to fire up (oxygen needs to be pumped around the body before it can be used) it only starts to kick in about one minute into your routine. Until then, you have to rely on your anaerobic system and available energy to get you through your first tumbles, jumps and stunts.
You are running on pure adrenaline, and your heart rate rises dramatically within the first 30 seconds. Your stored energy soon runs out, so the body needs an extra source: Oxygen. The only way to get this is through the aerobic energy system.
3. IMPROVING CARDIOVASCULAR FITNESS
The MORE OXYGEN YOUR BODY CAN PUMP, THE MORE EFFICIENT IT WILL BE. This, is what Cardiovascular Fitness is all about.If your athletes are collapsing after their first full-out, it just means their cardio training has been inefficient and the routine is beyond their physical capability. The question is: why are we training athletes to perform individual skills but we're not training their body to cope with doing the skills in a routine?
Let's take a step away from cheerleading for a minute: a steam engine will go faster if more coal is loaded into the furnace. If you have a lazy worker loading the coal, the engine won’t get enough power so they need to start working at twice the speed.
It's the same with cheer: you can train your body to intake more oxygen to fuel your full-out more efficiently. The official term for this is called the VO2 Max (ie maximum volume of oxygen intake). Improving cardiovascular fitness means we improve the efficiency of our lungs and heart to deliver as much oxygen to our muscles during exercise. We can train our lungs to take in more oxygen and instead of breathing more, each breath just is bigger and can take in more oxygen.
This means we won't get out of breath as much because the heart does not have to pump as hard. Simply put; the fitter you are, the lower your heart rate will be during exercise. Heart rate has an extraordinary impact on performance and execution, especially with something as intense as a full-out.
Our friends Susie and Mary will help you to understand this concept:
Susie is the perfect cheer athlete: she gives her max during cheer conditioning at training and she even works out in between. She has been cheering for years and she knows how important it is to train her body to give her maximum potential. Susie’s maximum Oxygen consumption (VO2max) is per 2500ml/minute, she has a healthy resting breathing rate of 10 breaths per minute and her heart rate after a full-out is 130bpm.
Mary loves cheerleading, stunting and tumbling - but finds conditioning a bit of a waste of time given that she can still hit her stunts in practice. Mary’s body can only take in a maximum of 2000ml/minute, has a high resting breathing rate of 15 breaths per minute, and during a full-out her heart is pounding at 145bpm.
HOW TO FIX THIS: Improve VO2Max and lower athlete's heart rates over 2 or 3 months by regularly adding cardiovascular fitness during training, and minimise talking in between stunt runs, or repeat stunt runs in between conditioning sets to get athletes used to perform stunts at a higher heart rate.
4. TRAINING FOR RESISTANCE
We cannot expect athletes to hit a pyramid 1.5min into a full routine with the same level of execution to when this section is trained in isolation (even if it is repeated over and over, the body has time to recover in between).
This is one of the main issues we see everywhere in cheer training sessions around the world. For our bodies to become comfortable with breaking that 1min anaerobic barrier and sustain the transition into aerobic exercise, we have to regularly put our muscles through 3 min of HELL on a regular basis - which many teams fail to do.
The lack of training what we call this "optimal surplus" (i.e. train beyond what our body has to go through) is the reason why we see so many injuries take place in the last 30min of practice or in the: athlete bodies are simply not prepared to be pushed over the edge: they literally snap under the pressure.
Cheerleading itself is not a dangerous sport - the danger lies in our bodies going beyond their capabilities. This is why it is not a luxury, but an essential part of training to condition our teams for an optimal surplus of stamina.
HOW TO FIX THIS: Train athletes for a minimum of 3minutes above 80% Heart Rate during every warmup and at home. Athletes should bring their heart rate above 80% HR at least 5 times a week for a minimum of 3 minutes.
5. READY TO FACE THE PHYSICAL CHALLENGES
We’re not saying athletes like Mary stand no chance of doing a full-out, but Susie bodies are much better equipped to take on the physical challenge consistently, whereas Mary is playing with her chances. When it comes to throwing people in the air and going through the intense physical challenge that is competitive cheerleading, we hope that more people will choose to be a Susie!
Before you decide to go all ROCKY BALBOA, remember that as with everything - skills and fitness need to be increased gradually and with progressions. You need to slowly build your resistance, endurance and cardiovascular fitness if you want to achieve the best your body can give you. Not only this is essential for safety, but slow progression creates the best outcomes. Consistent and gradually increasing cardio and endurance will build up your team's ability to smash-hit those home runs!