Ultimate-specific training is about making sure the time we’re putting into training will translate to performance on the field. If you’ve been paying attention, you already know that your conditioning should reflect the movement and metabolic demands of what occurs on the field. But how often do you think about the effects your footwear is having on your training?
Let’s take a look at why footwear and surface matter, and why you should vary what’s on your feet throughout your training year.
Why it matters
How much friction your footwear creates, as well as how soft a surface is, influence ground contact time.
For example, if you’re trying to run on a mattress, your ground contact time would be long regardless of what you were doing. Trying to change direction on a muddy grass field in sneakers will also create long ground contact time. When running on concrete or with big cleats on a muddy field, your ground contact time will likely be shorter.
The combination of footwear and surface dictates how much friction or stickiness there is. The greater the friction or stickiness, the more efficiently you will be able to transfer the force you put into the ground into forward momentum or change of direction. This is especially important in acceleration and agility training.
The softness of a surface influences how much force is absorbed by the ground. If you’re doing a plyometric training session, you want a softer surface like a track or soft grass. The softer a surface, the more it absorbs some of the force rather than it all being absorbed by your body. However, a surface that’s too soft like dry, loose sand won’t allow you to train your stretch shortening cycle (springiness) properly because too much force will be absorbed and dissipated by the ground.
Ground contact time matters in your training because it determines how much time you have to put force into the ground. If you play ultimate on grass, then training in cleats on grass is most sport specific. If you play beach ultimate, then training barefoot in sand is most sport specific.
But you can’t train in cleats on grass all the time. As I wrote in my last column, your training priorities should change throughout the year, and you should take the same approach to footwear. Learn when it matters, when it doesn’t, and what kind of shoes to choose.
During the offseason, sports specificity is less important. Footwear and surface can be chosen for convenience. If it’s cold where you live in the off season, you’ll likely find yourself training indoors with sneakers and that’s totally fine.
I recommend getting more concerned about the sport specificity of footwear and surface in the pre-season. If all of your workouts are in sneakers on a track or basketball court, you will not be prepared for the ultimate field no matter what type of workouts you’re doing. The footwear issue is one of the reasons many players wrongly believe that you have to play in tournaments to get in tournament shape. It’s just not true. Preparing yourself properly with workouts that mimic the movement and metabolic demands of playing can prepare you before tournament time. Training in cleats on grass is an important part of the equation. Build up a tolerance for fast changes of direction before you have to execute them in your first game.
As with any type of training, it’s best if you ease into it. Three to four weeks before you start playing outside, move one of your training sessions per week to cleats on grass and gradually increase the frequency of cleats on grass training.
Training in cleats on grass is most sport specific. However, constantly training in cleats on grass may easily lead to overtraining as quick changes of direction are stressful on the body.
During the season, you may want to go in the opposite direction and do some of your conditioning work in sneakers. As you are playing in cleats a lot outdoors, doing conditioning in cleats as well could easily lead to putting too much stress on the feet. There are many small bones in the feet that may not enjoy the constant stress and torque of quick directional changes that can occur with this kind of overuse.
A Word on Plyometrics
If you are doing anything beyond low intensity warm up plyos, it is imperative that you are working on a softer surface such as grass or a track surface. You want the ground to be able to absorb some of the forces of landing so that your body isn’t absorbing all of it. Plyos on surfaces such as concrete, macadam or a basketball court are not ideal; wearing sneakers on grass or a rubberized track surface is a better option.
Alternatively, you don’t want a surface that’s too soft. You want the surface to be flat and relatively stable so there are not unexpected surprises upon landing with a lot of force. For most players this is not a problem. However, with the increasing popularity of beach ultimate, it is important to understand that plyometrics or agility drills done on sand will NOT translate to grass.
On the Beach
If you are training for and playing beach ultimate, then you should practice your changes of direction and other training on sand. Sand allows and requires much more time to absorb and redirect force. This is very different than what happens on grass so you’ll need to train on sand to be fully prepared. Understand that plyometrics or agility drills on sand are not true plyometrics in that they won’t train the stretch shortening cycle. Prepare yourself with agility drills and plyos on grass before you transition back to your grass field season.
You know that what’s on your feet affects your performance; otherwise you wouldn’t pack your cleats in your carry on. So treat your training performance with the same respect by choosing the proper footwear for the job.