Understanding Aerobic Training for Squash

Unless you have a sport science degree the complexities of squash training can be somewhat difficult to comprehend.  Squash is a difficult sport to coach as squash athletes need to use all three energy systems, and almost all of the physical qualities also play an important role in squash performance. Many sports only need to emphasize one or two qualities: for example strength and power are primordial for an American Football lineman – whereas aerobic qualities have minimal importance – on the other hand aerobic performance is everything to a 10,000 meter specialist, with power and speed (as commonly defined – not referring to “speed-endurance”) of little significance.  The “Energy Systems Chart (ITF, 2007)” is a commonly used, over simplistic representation of sport physiology, as in most team, dual and combat sports, all three energy systems come into play, often simultaneously, during a competition.

Most squash coaches are aware that the aerobic system can be trained using continuous (e.g., a 3-mile run) or interval methods (e.g., ghosting one minute on and one minute off), but behind the scenes the physiological picture is a bit more complicated.  Here is a chart adapted from Sleamaker & Browning (1996) which provides an excellent picture of the different aspects of aerobic training:

Keeping in mind this is only one of several ways to organize or think about aerobic training, note that the aerobic training levels (I to IV) can be defined by the intensity of effort (percentage of maximum heart rate or percentage of VO2max – the HR method being the most practical one to use for squash coaches), and that at each level there are different physiological adaptations going on behind the scenes.

Translating the levels and related intensities into squash terms can be done by adapting the Borg (nothing to do with the tennis player:) Perceived Effort Scale (Rating of Perceived Exertion).  I prefer the older, simpler 10-point scale (although most physiologists now use the new scale) as the exertion ratings can quickly be converted to approximate hear rate (for an average 20-year old) – so a “4” , somewhat hard, would be equivalent to a HR of 140, a “7”, “very hard”, a heart rate of 170, etc. So for a squash coach to understand Sleamaker & Browning’s chart:

  • Level 1 = Borg 2 = HR 120, fairly light rally (e.g., exchanging high, slow lengths from the back);
  • Level 2 = Borg 3 = HR 130, moderate rally (e.g., length only game, medium pace);
  • Level 3 = Borg 4/5 = HR 140-150, tough rally (e.g., length only emphasizing volleys, cutting ball off);
  • Level 4 = Borg 7 = HR 170, very tough rally (e.g., retrieving against a shot-maker)
  • Level 5 = Borg 10 = HR 190-200, this is that last ditch effort, in the last couple of rallies – you are toast (due to high lactic acid accumulation:).

What to do with this information?  When I helped organize the College Squash Association’s Coaching Conference a few years ago (2006??) I asked John Power (Jonathon Power’s dad – a Squash Canada Level 4 Squash Coach, coaching at Dartmouth College at the time) to do an on-court presentation of squash drills and conditioned games to train each of the aerobic levels in order to show college squash coaches a) that aerobic training can be done effectively on court mixed in with “traditional” drills and games; and b) how the same drill or game can be used to train multiple aerobic levels by simply changing a few parameters.  Here is a summary of the organization John used for his presentation.  Note that there is an ideal progression for developing aerobic qualities, basically less intense to more intense as you move through the season, so we have added in the phase of an annual periodized plan to indicate when the training should be emphasized.

Can you demonstrate your understanding by thinking of an appropriate drill or game for each of the physical qualities listed in column 3 of the chart?

GP = general preparation phase; SP = specific prep.; PC = precompetition.

Application for Squash Coaches:

  1. Aerobic training can be done on court to save time, using standard squash drills and games.
  2. To get specific physiological adaptations important for the aerobic system, certain drill parameters (e.g., HR) must be followed.
  3. “Complicated” physiological measures of intensity (i.e., HR, % of VO2 max) can be replaced with easier, more subjective measures.

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