No, I'm not talking about adding up scores and judges' deductions, I am talking about one simple equation that can predict injuries in and out of gymnastics 100% of the time. Now, there are some great experts out there looking at numbers of hours trained, hard landings, time spent on vault and floor vs bars and beam vs. rings and p-bars etc to try to come up with a formula to maximize training without injury, and while I'm very much looking forward to reading that for now I want to keep it simple.
When AL > LT =I
You might be thinking "I thought you said you want to keep it simple, that math problem has exactly zero numbers in it, that doesn't seem simple at all."
Bear with me and read on for a few minutes and I promise you will be feeling like a math (and injury prevention) whiz.
When AL>LT = I
Lets break that down a bit further
AL = Actual Load - this refers to the load on an athletes body from a particular skill, a workout or looking larger a week or month of workouts. This takes into account landings, body positions, ground contacts, etc. and occurs with respect to speed, angles, number of repetitions, etc.
2. LT = Load Tolerance - this refers to how much load your athlete can tolerate
considering all of the components mentioned above, without ill
effects. This can be variable based on training history, mental state, sleep and nutrition
quality, recent workouts, etc.
3. I = Injury - this can refer to either an acute injury (broken bones, torn ligaments, etc)
or micro-traumas over time (achy knees, sore back, stinging ankles)
So, what does all of this mean? In gymnastics, we tend to want to increase actual load - more hours, harder skills, higher jumps, faster tumbling, but don't often spend time on increasing load tolerance (trying to mimic the gymnastics forces on the body during basic conditioning skills). Landings from a double back can equal >10x bodyweight, which can be really difficult to mimic no matter how many v-ups and panel mat jumps you do. If your AL (actual load) rises faster than LT (load tolerance), then you are on a one-way street to injury.
Consider the two people pictured below.
Let's call this gentleman on the left John, and say his barbell weighs a total of 300 lbs. We can hope John has been slowly increasing his load tolerance, such that his actual load (300lbs) is less than what he can possibly lift (load tolerance 350lbs)
Let's call this woman on the right Susan, and say her barbell weighs a total of 100 lbs. Similarly, let's say that Susan has also been working up in weight slowly to increase her tolerance, and that her actual load (100lbs) is also less than her load tolerance (135 lbs)
Based on our equation, both John and Susan are doing well (AL < LT, so no injury) and are able to continue lifting safely.
What if John and Susan switched barbells?
John, would be ok, as his new actual load (100lbs) is still way less than his load tolerance (350lbs). But for Susan, we better call a doctor because her new actual load (300lbs) is way more than her load tolerance (135lbs) and she is likely to get injured.
Now you may read this and say, "of course Susan would get injured, it is silly to try and lift three times what you normally do." I absolutely agree with this, and most of the time in gymnastics we are progressing skills over time, but let's think about summer coming up. For many kids, the combination of being off of school in the summer and potentially moving up to a first time competition team, or even a higher level can mean a significant increase in hours trained. For example a pre-team kid training 4 hrs per week may increase to 10 or 12 hours per week over the summer. This would be a 2-3x increase in actual load and shows us how necessary it is to start focusing on increasing load tolerance as well.
Now, without knowing your athletes, it would be impossible for me to give you a formula such as do 100 squats everyday and keep hard vault landings to 3, and no one will get injured. But what I do want to offer you is some ways to consider manipulating the variables in this equation to keep athletes happy and healthy.
ACTUAL LOAD - monitor, monitor, monitor. I know it is in season, and routines need to be completed, but for those high level athletes that are consistent, do they need to do 4 full hard floor routines and 4 hard landing vaults every day? Look at areas where you can decrease the load - softer landings, less routines, vault one day and floor the next, etc. The Harvard football team (and others who have followed) have completely eliminated contact such as tackling during all practices. I am not suggesting you have an athlete try a new vault landing only at meets, but I think there could be some middle ground. Don't forget to factor in weekend competitions to your actual load for the week. Aside from the actual warm-up and routines completed, there can be fatigue from travel, changed sleeping patterns and changed eating patterns.
LOAD TOLERANCE - make conditioning a priority, and make it look and feel like your skills.
Try to match speed, load, and body position as much as possible. A strength coach versed in gymnastics can be a great asset here, to combine traditional gymnastics conditioning with a strength style approach. Please consider the potential for using weights in your conditioning to actually decrease overall load. As I mentioned earlier, some tumbling can lead to landing forces of over 10x body weight. Mimicking this can look either like hundreds and hundreds of squat jumps, or 3 sets of ten squats with a moderate load, not much heavier than their backpack.
INJURY - as soon as there are aches and pains, modify the ACTUAL LOAD. If you can do this early, often times you can avoid full rest, then work on increasing load tolerance before fully returning. This can keep aches and pains as aches and pains, and not have them turn into stress fractures, torn ligaments, etc. Even seemingly acute injuries follow this principle - a "wrong landing" that leads to an ankle sprain is only wrong because the body could not tolerate load in that position. Increasing load tolerance in various positions can limit these injuries as well. A PT well-versed in gymnastics can be a huge asset in helping the coach to monitor and modify the loads appropriately.
If you are a coach, parent, or athlete wanting to know more about modifying these factors to decrease injury risk, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let's work together to change the culture of gymnastics from one of fixing the broken to supporting the healthy.