Bradford City’s unsung hero – talking to Nick Allamby (2/2)

The team that Nick Allamby made super fit

The team that Nick Allamby made super fit

Following part one of Nick Beanland’s interview with Bradford City’s Head of Performance, Nick Allamby, this concluding part looks at training, dieting and plans for next season.

By Nick Beanland

WOAP: What happens once the players are in for pre-season proper?

NA: It’s graduated again so it’s a case of ‘hard day, easy day’. You can’t just flog them for six weeks, because a level of fatigue builds up that they can’t recover from. I try to give them ‘football intensity’ so we get them straight into playing football – there’s none of the old fashioned stuff where you’ll just run for two weeks before you get to see the football.

That said, I do still like to do some pure aerobic sessions without the ball. Some people say that’s old school, but it guarantees that everyone is working at a certain level. As an example I’ll get everyone working at 90% of their maximum heart rate with some hard running sessions.

Another thing to bear in mind is that when the players come back after the summer they’ve not been used to football movements, which are very random and put a lot of stress on your muscles, joint and tendons. If you do the football training at too high an intensity too quickly that’s when you get injuries, so the football intensity is quite low in the first ten days and then it just gradually builds up as we reintroduce them to all the football specific movements. Over that first ten days the real intensity comes from non-football work, usually through hard running.

After that the running is phased down, becoming shorter and quicker, and the football becomes the main tool for conditioning. By weeks two and three the football’s at a much higher intensity.

WOAP: How do the players react to the work without the football?

NA: They know they have to do it – as well as fitness, the other reason we do it is because it’s character building. You get to see exactly what they’re made of. Some of them hate doing it, but the hard running work builds team spirit because they pull each other through and it also builds mental strength as they know that, once the season starts, they’re really fit and nothing’s going to be as hard as that.

It’ll be easier to convince the players it’s the right thing to do this year as they saw how well it worked last year.

After pre-season we started at Notts County in cup – it had been a tight game
until extra time, but then we ran all over them. The players came into the dressing room after that and were delighted at how fit they felt. At that point I think they were convinced by the work we were doing. They’re a good bunch of lads. Phil’s hired decent characters and they don’t mind working hard.

WOAP: How is important is diet?

NA: It’s one of the basic building blocks – you do the work and you have to make sure you recover properly so the players can adapt and get stronger. The three main things I stress to them all the time, the ones that are scientifically proven, are sleeping, eating (supplements are part of the nutritional strategy because they’re proven to work) and hydrating correctly.

I’m a big believer in the players taking recovery shakes within thirty minutes of finishing training/games. If they train properly and do those things well then they will recover. Other things you could consider, such as compression tights and ice baths, might or might not work – some players believe in them and some don’t.

I also provide the players with energy gels as an option for half time during games – a highly trained endurance athlete could hold glycogen (energy reserves stored in the body) for 60-90 minutes. Footballers are not as highly trained in endurance terms so they’ll probably have glycogen stores to last 45-60 minutes. If they take a gel at half time it will help them get through the second half. All these things help and it’s just a question of educating the players to do it.

We can only control two meals a day – I revamped the menus so they’re now much more varied. Breakfast will be wholemeal and white toast, porridge, fruit and cereals such as Weetabix or Shredded Wheat. Lunchtimes sees the main choices being based around lean meats and fish. In terms of carbohydrates I prefer rice or potatoes rather than grain based carbs such as pasta. Eating too much pasta can lead to adding to their body fat stores, so cutting that back helps make them leaner.

Fresh vegetables are always part of the meal and then afterwards it’ll generally be yoghurt. I think we do pretty well bearing in mind it’s all on a budget and hopefully this year I’ll be able to get a consultant nutritionist in to give the players some more help.

WOAP: How might training schedules and diet differ between an older player like Gary Jones and some of the younger ones like Nahki Wells?

NA: Gary is a special case. He’s very driven and is a great professional. He hadn’t done an off season training plan so he found pre-season tough, but he worked really hard. Once the games started he told me he felt great so I quickly gained a level of trust with him and that was it – he was on board with my methods. He does everything that’s asked of him and you couldn’t ask for a better professional.

Nahki’s native diet is very good – based around chicken and rice. James Meredith is one who’s still young and probably a better example to use. In terms of hydration we test them twice a week – if they’re not adequately hydrated they get fined and at first he struggled with that, so I gave him a hydration plan.

Before that he would go away and glug three litres of water in one go, wee it all out and he’s still dehydrated, whereas they need to be drinking little and often so that the liquid diffuses into the body tissue. Initially he maybe didn’t have a full appreciation of the diet that’s needed to compete at the required level, but he improved as the season went on.

WOAP: Phil Parkinson has clearly gone for a certain type of character with the players he’s signed and this is one of the mentally toughest City teams I’ve ever seen. You work on the players’ physical fitness – do you also work on their mental fitness?

NA: Not directly. We use a sports psychologist (John Muranka, whose work with Luke Oliver was highlighted at the end of the 2011/12 season) who’s worked with some individuals within the team.

In terms of the mental strength of the team, I think a lot of that comes from Phil, Steve Parkin and myself, in terms of the work we put in day-to-day and what he demands of them on the field. We’ve got really good characters in this team, like Gary Jones, Ricky Ravenhill, Andrew Davies (who’s done really well this season in terms of playing a lot more games) and Rory McArdle. You can keep going on and on – when you hire those sorts of people, who are winners, you create a core to the squad.

The ones who are perhaps not quite as strong yet will follow them. When you’re picking up points that creates belief and the players knew that physically, even if we were losing games, no team was going to out-run them. It was just a question of keeping going and we felt they would get their rewards and that showed with the number of late goals we scored.

WOAP: One of the things that struck me when City started life in the Premier League in 1999 was how much quicker the game was. This season, when we played Premier League teams I felt we generally looked like we were at least as fit as them and, in some cases, more so. We’re operating in a different world to them so how can it be that our lads are as fit, if not more so, than them?

NA: I don’t know 100% what methods the top level teams now use but my methods involve working to a certain intensity – very hard – and that works for me. I don’t know whether things have changed at the higher level or if their players aren’t as motivated as ours.

The thing with the Premier League is that the overall pace of the game is not as quick as the lower leagues, but the ball is in play a lot more and elements of the game will be quicker, particularly involving explosive pace in the final third. The difference there is how quickly they move the ball and how quickly they move into space to receive it.

Footballers are still primarily selected for their technical ability, but at our level athleticism becomes paramount because their technical qualities are less good than those at the top level. We try to prepare our team as professionally as we can. We haven’t got all the bells and whistles that the Premier League teams have but I have every faith that our programme will get a team to a very good level physically.

WOAP: There were long stretches of the season where we consistently played Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday. The play offs saw us play on a Thursday night before a quick turnaround for the second leg on Sunday lunchtime. What do you do in that short period to get them ready to play again?

NA: We know we have to get them ready to play every game at full speed, so it’s a question of short duration drills in training but they have to be at game tempo. You can’t say ‘we’ve had loads of games so we won’t train very much’. If you do that they’d just go into games and not be able to cope with it.

After the first leg we gave them a short recovery period and then light training with very short periods of intense work, perhaps two four minute games played at full pace, surrounded by lots of recovery.

We then had two weeks going into the play off final at Wembley and that was tough to plan because you don’t want to be doing a lot of training as they’ve just played 63 games, but we also knew that physicality would be a massive part of the game so we had to make sure they were right.

After the Burton game we got them in and worked them hard for two days and then gave them four days off. We then had a normal week in the build up to Wembley – trained very lightly on the Monday (what I call a ‘restart day’), trained quite physically on the Tuesday (short periods of 11 v 11), Wednesday off, Thursday was technical and tactical work, perhaps only an hour.

On Friday we trained at St George’s Park as their surfaces replicate the Wembley pitch. Our training surface is not at that standard – the ball moves a lot quicker at Wembley, so it was another element of preparation we felt was important.

WOAP: Team Sky’s cycling team focus on improving lots of small details in their training – are there any other sports you draw on for the work you do?

NA: I think football can be elitist sometimes and I’m constantly reading about other sports, trying to pick up new ideas. I’m interested in cycling and athletics and a lot of the things they do are applicable to my work.

One thing that crops up when you read about Team Sky is consistency, making sure the athletes are doing similar things all the time. An example for us is that we wrote menus that are sent to the hotels we stay at; so whilst it’s still down to interpretation of the individual chef, we get basically the same food wherever we stay, so the players get the food they’re used to and they like, which is key to preparation. All those little things matter and might give us an edge.

WOAP: What other non-football training do the players do?

NA: Our training philosophy is about working at intensity with moderate volume because of the number of games we play. That has to be backed up with other, non-football, elements. We emphasise strength and conditioning work and the players all have individual programmes which they do twice a week, and in some cases more often than that.

Football is an endurance sport and they have to be as powerful as they can whilst maintaining as lean a physique as possible, so I’m not interested in weights that are going to make them look good on the beach. Everything they do has to help them with their game. We have to make sure the players can move well, as if their movement patterns are poor that will lead to injury. Once we’ve done that we’re then looking at building up their strength and power.

The tricky thing is that, unlike an athlete who’s aiming for one peak a year, we’re aiming for 50 peaks a year (or 64 peaks) so the strength and conditioning work has to be done a bit at a time. The biggest indicator of how successful that work has been is the number of people who have been available to train through the week and play on a weekend.

WOAP: You’ve clearly had a massive impact on the team and your sort of work seems to be increasingly valued. Do many other clubs in League Two adopt a similar approach?

NA: I think that more managers are coming round to the ideas of sports science. Whether they work to similar principles as me I couldn’t say. A few of the clubs we’ve been to this season have had sports scientists involved but I don’t know how much influence they have.

There are still some managers who are not as convinced of sports science as Phil is, so my appointment was still quite an unusual one for League Two level. The integrated approach we have here is one I believe in so I’m really lucky to have a manager who thinks the same way.

WOAP: How do you feel about the season ahead and what will hopefully be at least another three years with the current management team in situ?

NA: Very excited. I’m very lucky I’ve found three people – Phil, Steve and Matt Barrass – I get on so well with and they’ve become friends as well as work colleagues. We’re all singing from the same hymn sheet and that’s a great help.

We’ll keep our philosophies going, and if our success last season helps us afford a few more luxuries that might help us improve then all well and good. Hopefully we can get the players that will afford us the opportunity to be competitive again and we’ll see how we do at this level.

A huge, huge thanks to Nick Beanland for taking the time to speak to Nick Allamby and for writing up this outstanding interview (not an easy task!) Thank you also to Nick Allamby for his time.

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