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Brad Stenger, MEDILL Bbb

French researcher Gregory Dupont found risk of major injury increases when soccer players play more frequently.  

Euro research points to an overworked NBA

by Brad Stenger
Nov 04, 2010

The NBA is a mere two weeks into its six-month long regular season. The wear and tear hasn't yet built to the point where player injuries are mounting, but research looking at European soccer schedules suggests that day will be here soon.

Gregory Dupont from the University of Lille's Laboratory of Human Movement Studies in France monitored injuries during the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 UEFA Champions League seasons. He found the injury rate was six times higher when players played two matches per week versus one match per week. He published the study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine last April.

During the regular season NBA teams play 2-4 games per week and travel longer distances than a typical European soccer team. Though both sports require extraordinary fitness, there are different athletic requirements in each. Soccer players run a great deal, often sprinting full out. Basketball players depend more on explosive vertical and lateral movements but also sprint with regularity.

But Robert Forster says the soccer research finding applies to basketball and high-level sports in the U.S. across the board. He trains Olympic and professional athletes at his Phase IV center in Santa Monica, Calif.

“Every sport that I come in contact with fails to appreciate the importance of a solid aerobic base,” says Forster. Aerobic base, as Forster sees it, is low-intensity long-duration aerobic exercise.

“We have our athletes build up to 3-5 mile runs or even more,” says Forster. Elton Brand is an NBA player for the Philadelphia 76ers and a Forster client. “We built him up to two and three hours of riding on the bike to get those aerobic system adaptations.”

Once they have that aerobic base the strength and coordination requirements of their sport are built on top of that. An inadequate base leads to fatigue that can become chronic without adequate recovery and nutrition, one reason for the increase in injuries when soccer players have more games, according to Forster.

Pierre Barrieu, conditioning coach for U.S. Soccer's Men's National Team, saw his team compete in this past summer's World Cup with very few injuries, “Not more than two guys missed practice on a single day.”

Having practice, according to Barrieu, is central to avoiding injuries.

“You get hurt in games way more than you get hurt in practice,” says Barrieu. “If you end up playing twice a week as opposed to once a week, you decrease the number of practices you hold.”

Sounds simple, but it's complicated for reasons that are consistent with Forster's emphasis on solid aerobic base.

Barrieu asks for two kinds of preventive work from his players, low-intensity injury prevention work and high-intensity fitness training.

“The injury prevention work has to be done at strategic times,” says Barrieu. “It has to take place at times that aren't detrimental to players' recovery periods. When you have three days in between games with travel, it gets tricky.”

The injury prevention work can be done in a lot of different places, but “the fitness work has to be done with high-intensity. It's taxing. You also need time to recover from the fitness work” to benefit from it.

With busy game schedules and without the high-intensity conditioning, player fitness levels decrease. According to Barrieu as fitness levels go down so does cognitive awareness, and so does athletes' ability to maintain stability in their joints, and “as a result you become more injury-prone.”

The business of sports also plays a role in increasing the risk of overuse injuries.

“The other thing that comes to my mind is roster size,” says Barrieu. “Some of the teams in the Champions League aren't really ready for it. They don't have an adequate number of players. And there's a work overload on players that shouldn't be taking place.”

Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah has played 120 out of a possible 144 minutes in his team's three games this season. Last season Noah missed more than 20 percent of the Bulls' regular season games.

Tonight the Bulls are playing the New York Knicks in Chicago, then have to travel to Boston for a game against the Celtics tomorrow, the first of 20 time times this season that the Bulls play games on consecutive days.

“If a team has 20 back-to-backs in a season,” says Tim Frank from the NBA communications office, “that's going to be rough, no matter what.”

The structure of player contracts differs from player to player in both soccer and basketball, but player paychecks can also play a role.

“For players more games is more money,” Jason Richardson, shooting guard for the Phoenix Suns recently said in Salt Lake City. “We get paid by the game.”

Frank explains, “It's generally not done that way.” Players, he feels, are aware that if there were fewer games then they, along with everyone else, would make less money.

“We've played an 82-game season for something like 60 years,” said Frank, noting that teams have invested more and more in recent years on health and fitness, typically using the latest technology to monitor players.

The league also keeps track of every injury that occurs in every game, information league officials do not release to the public.