Understanding Aerobic Training for Squash

February 12, 2012

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.

Aerobic “Tactical-Technical” Ghosting for Squash

January 11, 2010

If you are similar to most coaches, you have limited time during squash practice to work on multiple objectives – often with a fairly large group of athletes.  Here is an example of a ghosting (movement without hitting the ball)  exercise I developed for my Smith College team this morning that integrates aerobic training (physical), with “tactical” court movement (technique).

Ghosting = Aerobic + Tactical Movement + Technique

We use a “zone” tactical model of squash to guide our team’s training (System 3), so today I divided our court into three zones (front, mid, back)  for our aerobic training, and related the movement in each zone to the tactics often found in each zone:

front: defence or attack;

mid: attack/pressure except if ball is tight on wall;

back: rally.

I am doing this since I want the players to “think” about what they are doing, so that even their physical training encourages them to be smart players.  There are three players per court since we had 12 at practice today. Four courts of three, are easier to supervise than five courts and the athletes can feed off each other’s energy.

Physical (Aerobic) Aspect of Ghosting

Depending on the author, there are at least five aerobic “zones” we need to train in squash, ranging in intensity from a low 60-65% effort, up to a high 85-90% (dependent on anaerobic threshold).  Each zone  features a particular physiological adaptation, so the intensity of work should be planned and communicated to the athletes.  The intended intensity of today’s exercise was about 75%, so we asked the players to check their heart rate for ten seconds every five minutes to make sure they were in the correct training zone.  Fifteen minutes is a good amount of time for this type of interval training (where other aerobic training is also being done on the same day). A timer on each court was set for 20 seconds, at which point each player would switch zones, so the work:rest ration was about 3:1, with 15 seconds work and 5 seconds rest (as the player moves to the next zone).

Tactical-Technical Aspects of Ghosting

The movement required is related to the tactical objective of the shot practiced (defensive shot – move straight to ball; rallying or offensive shot – “curved” path to ball to create space when the difficulty of the ball received allows for this).

  1. Backcourt – players move to back to ghost a straight drive with arced movement, so “rallying”.
  2. Mid-Court – players ghost two volleys (pressuring/attacking), and two lunging “gets” of low, tight, drives from opponents (defending) – both movement straight to ball.
  3. Front-court – player ghosts two drives using “banana” movement to ball (attack), and then two “defensive” counter-drops with movement straight to ball (defence or counter=attack depending on how you interpret this shot)

By explaining the tactical context of the physical movement and ghosting, it is hoped the players will better integrate this training into their game.

Player Feedback

You can see in each of the two clips (shot and uploaded to YouTube via my iPhone 3Gs) that there was at least one player who was not doing the movement correctly because they did not understand my verbal description and demonstration of the drill.  This will happen frequently with your players who “learn by doing” rather than seeing or hearing.  Rather than waste time seeking total comprehension from all of my players, I chose to move them into action quickly and correct where necessary once the training was underway.

Application for Squash Coaches:

  1. Use exercises with multiple objectives to save time.
  2. Where possible, relate all training to tactics or a tactical model so your players can develop into “smart” players.
  3. Provide explanations and feedback that match the learning style of your squash players(auditory, visual, kinaesthetic).

Do Squash Players Need Big Biceps?

July 21, 2008

This post is a comment on an article in the Times (UK that is) on Andy Murray’s new fitness training program. The topic was a hot one in London during Wimbledon as Murray had taken to flexing his biceps after early round wins until stopped by the man with the biggest biceps (Nadal) in the quarterfinals.

The article discusses Murray’s improved fitness, the role of his two strength and conditioning personnel, and several elements of his fitness program. I take issue with the appropriateness (principle of sport specificity) of several of these elements for a tennis player, and broach the topic as a warning to athletes who wholeheartedly embrace the trainers and programs of “celebrity” athletes. Read the rest of this entry »


Using Squash to Cross-Train for Team Sports

November 8, 2007

Most of the college team sport athletes I have observed use two main methods to stay in shape when their season is over: a 30- to 60-minute aerobic workout, usually running or biking; and strength training in the weight room, usually for a similar amount of time.

This type of off-season training program will allow them to maintain some conditioning and perform well on standard aerobic and strength tests such as the 1.5 mile run, squat and bench press.

The problem with this type of training is that it does not involve most of fitness components that are actually involved in performing a team sport. Continuous running and biking of the type performed in the off-season primarily involves slow-twitch muscle fibers and the use of fat as a fuel for motion. It usually does not involve the FOG (fast oxidative glycolytic) fibers characteristic of the high-intensity, stop-and-start movements of team sports, nor physiological adaptations related to lactic acid, anaerobic threshold, and use of muscle glycogen as a fuel.

The strength training exercises are usually performed slowly in the 10 to 12 repetition range, a method which does not duplicate the often explosive, plyometric movements of team sports that feature heavy recruitment of fast-twitch fiber.

Missing fitness components include agility, dynamic balance, reaction speed, power and the challenging of joint propioceptors whose involvement is critical to avoiding injuries such as ACL tears.

Although these shortcomings in the usual off-season training programs can be overcome playing occasional games, the lack of an available opponent and more than several teammates can be problematic. Read the rest of this entry »