How wrestlers can avoid burnout & injuries & peak at the right time

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Updated: January 19, 2023

Photo: Diversifying strength-training exercises — such as keg lifting — can also help wrestlers endure the long wrestling season.

By Zach Even-Esh

I was on Twitter recently engaging with other coaches and former wrestlers, one of them being Adam Tirapelle, who was a national champ at Illinois. The question and conversation was how to help wrestlers stay healthy for the long term while also wrestling and competing at a high level. 

The example was this; high school kids are wrestling all year round with a heavy competitive season in the fall and the spring, accumulating 150-200 off-season matches. In the college level for Division I, practice begins mid-September and ends with the Nationals in mid March, which is just shy of six months of going extremely hard. 

Since COVID, we’ve seen wrestlers speak about how much better they felt wrestling and competing just during the spring semester rather than the typical six months. I don’t have the statistics, but I would like to do some research on the amount of knee and shoulder injuries wrestlers get today during high school and college compared to 10, 15 and 20 years ago. 

Now, before I get into the training for health, longevity and success, I look back at my time at Lehigh and Rutgers and most of the guys who were achieving higher success were not the best high school guys.

So, when do you want to peak; high school or college? Only seven percent of high school athletes continue competing in college and 1-2 percent are Division I athletes. I’ve seen a dramatic increase in work output from wrestlers the past 12 years. Wrestlers have more coaches than ever before. They train more than ever before and unfortunately, I see them achieving less than ever before. 

Pre-2012, I trained many wrestlers who won state championships in high school and they only went to one wrestling club and had one strength and conditioning coach. Today, our wrestlers often go to two different clubs, have coaches for S&C, nutrition, mindset and anything in between and they struggle to place in states. 

Why? They do a lot of work but they are coasting, trying to make it to the next practice or workout. High volume, average quality. 

Below are various thoughts on how to train for longevity. 

First, to compete at a high level of wrestling, the wrestler must work hard. This hard work must be balanced with a high level of recovery methods. Luckily, there are businesses opening everywhere with opportunities for recovery. These are often called “recovery lounges”. This involves sauna, compression sleeves for legs, arms and shoulders, chiropractic care, massage and cold-water exposure. 

On the flip side, I would say that all wrestlers are operating at a deficit from lack of sleep, lack of rest, lack of optimal nutrition and too much time spent connected to their phone or technology. The best recovery modalities are free; sleep, hydration and rest days. 

College coaches look for wrestlers at the big tournaments in the fall and the spring. This entices wrestlers to now train all year long, with maybe a break in August. 

So, the question is, how do we optimally prepare the wrestler for success in the short term and for long-term health. 

• Strength train year-round with an expert sports performance coach. The reality is that a proper strength and conditioning program is the best “prehab” program to dramatically reduce injuries in the wrestler for both short and long term. The wrestler who avoids strength training year-round is often riddled with injuries. A great program can be achieved with twice-a-week training for approximately 45 minutes. 

• Vary the combat sport exposure. This could mean taking up judo in the fall or spring instead of wrestling. Compete in two sports at least through sophomore year in high school. In the developmental youth years, compete in three different sports to build balance and all-around athleticism. 

• Avoid the on- and off-training cycle where you completely stop training for two to three months, then return for three months, then disappear again. This creates a roller-coaster effect where you get results, lose the results, then start all over again and often train in an act of desperation.  

• If you’re cutting weight every season, is this because you are afraid of competing at a certain weight? Why is being lighter and starved an advantage? It is not an advantage and this makes me question a wrestler’s preparation in the off-season. 

• After the season, reduce or remove spinal loading for four to six weeks in strength training. Focus on higher reps, building the stabilizer muscles / joints and overall train less intensely to reduce both physical and emotional stress. This is part of a periodized training plan and is also how we build an annual training plan. 

• Utilize alternate forms of conditioning rather than only running, especially for the heavier wrestlers / upper weights. Running for a wrestler under 175 pounds is very different than for an upper- and heavyweight wrestler. Utilize swimming, the rower, ski erg, air dyne bikes and even games that disguise themselves as forms of conditioning like dodge ball. 

• Every week there must be a rest day. You can train hard or you can train often but you cannot do both. Choose quality over quantity. 

• Injuries can sometimes be a freak accident and other times injuries are a sign of overuse and/or lack of proper preparation. Assess these injuries with an expert and then create a training plan to build up weak/vulnerable areas to increase your durability and all-around health. 

I hope you take action with these tips and help your son/daughter or your wrestling team to feel better, have more fun on the mat and have more overall success.  

(Zach Even-Esh is a strength and sports performance coach and consultant located in New Jersey. For more info, visit http://ZachStrength.com and http://UndergroundStrengthGym.com.)  

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