Marc Portus, Stuart Karppinen and Patrick Farhart
Managing athlete workloads in sport has been a pretty hot topic in recent years. It has gained a lot of research attention and there is some strong evidence that poorly executed training and match loads are linked to a higher risk of injury, across many sports, not just cricket. Some pundits have proposed to term this a ‘training error’, rather than managing workload, to try and break the negative connotations perceived by some that it limits development. Cricket is a sport where the evidence is clear and has been for 30 odd years, there are numerous research papers published from various research groups showing similar patterns. If you bowl too much, too often, your chances of getting injured are at least doubled. But on the flipside, if you do not bowl enough, you also increase your chances of injury! No wonder former greats and commentators of the game sometimes get critical about bowling workload guidelines.
Last month we published two pre-season bowling programs on the Pace Doctor website so teenage fast bowlers are ready to bowl at the Cricket Australia prescribed weekly delivery range for the start of the season. These programs were widely read, probably suggesting people are looking for guidance in the area (thank you for your interest). The truth is these programs (and workload management generally) were based on simple progressive overload theory. The programs we provided in that article are also useful guidelines for younger or older bowlers who are looking to sensibly build their body’s tolerance to fast bowling over the course of the pre-season. You can tweak them to suit your own circumstances and your own physical status (i.e. fitness, age, work, school demands).
But are these programs a guarantee you will not get injured during fast bowling? The answer is they will help reduce your risk, but they are no guarantee. Two similar aged fast bowlers can go through the same program and one can find it hard and make them sore, while the other finds it relatively easy. It is important to acknowledge that there is no one size fits all, in the real world some bowlers have a greater tolerance and capacity to handle larger bowling workloads. But how do you identify these bowlers, and how do you manage them?
Ultimately, when getting to the more elite ends of the high-performance pathway it is about managing risk. Bowlers need to keep evolving their skills and resilience. To keep extending fast bowlers, there are several factors that you need to take into consideration before increasing the amount of deliveries that they complete above recommended guidelines (we list 10 major factors below). If you have assessed your individual fast bowler and have deemed them to be capable of more, then you should understand that individual's relationship between external load (i.e. the bowling spell) and their internal response (e.g. what's the bowling load where they start to fatigue, lose sleep, get niggles and lose effectiveness). This often requires support staff to monitor athletes daily in terms of sleep, fatigue, pain, general well-being, and muscle soreness over time to understand each athletes’ individual responses to external demands. See the example below from the Barca Innovation Hub.
Below we outline 10 factors, in no particularly order, to better understand if a bowler has capacity to tolerate increased bowling workloads.
1. Milestone events
When assessing workloads in developing fast bowlers pay attention to first time or milestone events. For example, the first time they bowl 15 or 20 overs in a day, or hit a certain bowling speed, or play in a tournament requiring consecutive days of bowling or have recently bowled longer spells than usual. Research shows these are all events where they are highly likely to have exceeded their normal physical capacity and can therefore put the athlete at risk of subsequent injury in the next 2-4 weeks.
2. Back pain and muscle soreness – there is a difference
The classic fast bowling injury is lower back pain, the most serious manifestation being lumbar spine stress fractures. These often occur on the non-bowling side – that is on the left lower back for a right hand bowler, on the right lower side for a left hand bowler. Be extremely conservative if there is reporting of lower back pain that is on the opposite side to the bowling arm. Sometimes the pain can be quite generalised across the lower back. Having said that, it is OK for athletes to have muscle soreness and be fatigued during training periods, but only if you have planned for it. Muscle soreness is part of the bodies adaptation process to loading through the stress adaptation cycle. The more an athlete matures they start to recognise the difference between muscle soreness (from a new demand imposed upon them) versus genuine injury related pain, indicator something more sinister might be going on.
If technique is poor, a teenage bowler remains in a high-risk injury category, and spinal health is a critical aspect of anybody’s health, not just the fast bowler. Some aspects of technique are correctable and should be addressed, especially for teenage fast bowlers, others should not necessarily be changed, but understood and compensated for in a bowler’s physical conditioning. A teenage fast bowler trying to bowl with an extreme front-on technique will often counter-rotate their trunk (i.e. rapidly twist their upper body side on between back and front foot landings). Excessive levels of this (i.e. > 40 degrees) has been linked to lumbar spine injuries. Given research has shown this technique gives no performance advantages it is a clear example of a technique change that can be made to reduce risk of injury.
Excessive lateral flexion of the upper body through ball release is another example of a technique flaw that should be changed – it is stressful for the lower back and has no performance advantages. The action of the front leg is one of those factors that represents the classic injury-performance trade-off. Bowling with a stiffer front leg leads to higher impact forces (and therefore stress), but also is linked to higher ball speeds. In this case ensuring the bowlers’ fitness and strength program supports the front leg technique is important, changing the technique is not always the answer in this case. Pace Doctor can help bowlers, their coaches, and their support staff here with our range of technique analysis packages. You can check out Pace Doctor technique analysis services here.
4. Previous injury history
This may sound obvious, but it often gets overlooked. Previous injury is a successful predictor of future injury in most athletic endeavours, not just cricket. If someone has a history of hamstring strain, they are statistically more likely to suffer another in the future than someone who has no history of the injury. In cricket, we often see elite fast bowlers suffering more than one round of lower back injury. Brett Lee, Mitchell Johnson, Patrick Cummins and James Pattinson are all well documented examples of elite Australian fast bowlers who have suffered lumbar spine injuries more than once.
5. Chronological v Skeletal age
Age is a known risk factor for fast bowling injuries, with teenage fast bowlers experiencing higher rates of injury than most other age groups. There is no one exact age as chronological age does not necessarily reflect skeletal maturity. Puberty and growth spurts through adolescence are renowned high-risk times for fast bowlers. Often bowlers can lose performance here too as coordination, strength and balance all change for the growing teenager. This is not a time to push through with increased bowling loads or more work in the gym, let nature run its course and let the athlete settle after the growth spurt, when bone mineral density in the spine recovers. They may need a reduction or plateau in workload (with no progressive overload) with an increase in low level drill work for technique refinement for this short period. This will give the bowler time to adapt and grow and reduce stress (physical and emotional). They should be able to come back bigger and better once the growth phase has settled.
6. Training Age
Training age refers to the length of time an athlete has spent performing routine and planned physical training. In the fast bowler’s case this can refer to running, gym work, other intense sport experience and specific exercises such as core strength work. The more months/years of training behind a fast bowler will usually make them more resilient, more adaptable to new stresses (e.g. increased workloads or a technique change) and allow them to recover more quickly from injury setbacks. The type of training can be important too, with a well-rounded aerobic and strength training history being a good basis for more specific fast bowling work and increased workloads.
7. Playing history
How many seasons have they played for? Are they just starting out or have they been playing for several years now? Have they been a fast bowler the whole time or is it a new role for them in their cricket? Getting an indication of the most amount of overs they have bowled in a single season, what is the most amount of overs they have bowled in a match and what is the most amount of overs they have bowled in a single spell, provides considerable insight into an individual bowler’s work capacity.
8. Aerobic capacity
Aerobic capacity is a key foundation for general fitness. How fit are they? This not only helps in the duration that the athlete is able to train for, but also impacts on their ability to be fully recovered and back up for the next training session or match. Put first things first, build this capacity if its low, it is one foundation that is needed at a reasonable level to enable more specific fast bowling training, resilience and skill development. Pace Doctor can help with fitness programs for fast bowlers, contacts us if you need help in this area.
9. Relative strength
Fast bowling is a stressful activity, with average ground reaction forces being around 5 times bodyweight at back foot landing and 7 times bodyweight at front foot landing. A fast bowler’s relative strength (i.e. their strength levels relative to their weight) is important to absorb those forces and not collapse (i.e. flex) their knees and hips. Excessive lateral flexion of the trunk and a splayed front foot away from the target at the point of release can often be an indication of inadequate strength levels. Having the appropriate strength level is important to control the trunk and stabilise the body during the front foot contact phase and ball release. Contact us if you need Pace Doctor help in this area.
10. Planning for the season ahead
Another key factor to consider is the playing season that lies ahead. What type of matches are scheduled (e.g. 20 over versus multi-day), might they be selected in a new team, carnival, rep squad or academy for the upcoming season? These projections should assist with planning bowling workloads. Investigate how many days per week they must play and the consecutive days in a row they might have to play. This understanding helps in the preparation for those high workload periods.
As you can see, there is a lot to consider for a fast bowler to start bowling above 'standardised' bowling workloads. Everyone is different and some will thrive when they do it, some will not, make sure you have your eyes open when heading down this path.
It's often the path traveled by the high performance fast bowler.