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Playing on the road: Travel and recovery

Photos: Chris Glidden

Getting a result on the road is hard. It’s so hard that the phrase “getting a result” doesn’t even refer to winning but coming home with a draw.

So what makes playing away so difficult?

Our series continues with the physical and mental challenges of traveling and playing on the road.

Traveling to play on the road, whether via three-hour bus ride or six-hour flight, takes its toll on the body. Traffic jams and flight delays can cause stress, and being stuck in a seat for hours breathing recycled air affects the body. As with other aspects of travel, good planning can help.

“Yeah, it’s tough,” Union defender Amobi Okugo said. “Depending on if its long distance travel, or even a short trip, like a bus trip to DC or New York, depending on where it is, the coaching staff and the training staff will prepare the training week for that.”

As Union fitness coach Kevin Miller explained, for professional athletes whose goal is to play at a high level, when it comes to travel, “The big issues are nutrition, sleep and the ability to recover.”

While healthy food options are available at airports, Miller recommends to players that they bring good food with them for the flight if possible.

“It was new to me, not having played soccer and not being a professional athlete, the impact that travel does have on your body,” Miller said. “It’s very, very challenging and can have an effect on your central nervous system and your ability to go out and play at a high level, so you really need to plan ahead. So you try to tell the players the day before a trip,’Try to think of what you need.’ You don’t want to be on a plane for a three-hour flight with no food with you. That’s just not a good situation to be in.

“For example, when we went to Vancouver, we had a connecting flight and were looking at a six hour travel time,” Miller said. “So ideally, the players would have one to two water bottles with them, a sandwich, and some snacks that can at least carry them over throughout the flight.”

Okugo said water was key.

“We always have to have a bottle of water during the flight just to keep hydrated, especially with long flights,” Okugo said.

Definitely not a pregame meal

Definitely not a pregame meal

Preseason planning for away games involves planning team breakfasts, which typically are built around an omelet buffet, and pre-game meals, which include ” a good combination of protein, carbohydrates and fat.”

“The food on the road is very good,” Miller said. “I think our players are given, as far as nutrition, every chance to perform well on the road.”

The next concern is helping the body recover from being cooped up in a plane for hours. Okugo described how, in addition to keeping hydrated during a flight, recovery is aided by by other methods. “We have the pro recovery tights,” Okugo said. “They’re like leggings for guys, that you wear on flights for blood flow. That really helps with long flights. I know a lot of the older guys wear them.”

“Flying is hard on the body,” Miller explained. “Depending on the flight, where you’re traveling to, it is really good when you get off of the airplane and get to the hotel to try to get outside and get some sun or some fresh air so that, rather than just going from the airport to a bus ride into the hotel and just staying in your hotel room, if at all possible get outside and go for a walk. Sometimes we do some training sessions, which helps, just because it helps set the rhythm of your body, helps loosen up your muscles.”

So those photos on Twitter of players seeing the sights before an away game are more than just fun?

“Yeah, it definitely tends to be a little more than that,” Miller said with a laugh. “The whole purpose is just to go out and get some fresh air, get some sunlight because the last thing you want to do is get to a hotel room at 2 o’clock and stay in your hotel room all day and all night. That would, in my opinion, hurt your chance at playing at a high level the next day. Getting out for a 20 or 30-minute walk, getting some fresh air, is really beneficial to the body.”

One room at the team’s hotel is always set aside to be converted into an impromptu treatment room, which is part of the training staff’s efforts to help the players be as comfortable as possible. It’s also also key during extended road trips because players usually need two to three days to recover from a game. “When we get to a hotel room, we go to work,” Miller said. “Our job is to make sure the players are getting treatment, we’re not going out in the city and sightseeing. Guys like Paulie Rushing, the work that they’re doing to make sure the players are ready the next day, that’s what the fans don’t see but there’s a lot of work that goes into that. I know the players appreciate that.”

On the road image 3

Sleep is important

Getting good rest is as important as it can be difficult for some on the road, and that begins on the plane.

“On the flight, a couple of the guys have trouble sleeping so they take sleeping pills,” Okugo said. “Personally for me, I can sleep wherever, whenever.” Chuckling, he added, “Usually before the flight has taken off I’m already asleep.”

Sleeping in a hotel room is different than sleeping in one’s own bed at home, and adjusting to a new time zone can affect sleep routines. But for some players, being on the road can be an opportunity to catch up on sleep.

“For some guys, to be honest with you, maybe even being away from home sometimes could be a chance to get a really good night’s sleep,” Miller said. “So if you have some players who have kids — maybe they’re getting up in the middle of the night — sometimes that can work in their favor. At the end of the day, you have a lot of dads on the team, sometimes you can use that 24-hour or 48-hour block to maybe catch up on some sleep and go from there.”

Okugo agreed. “Some of the guys who have families, they kind of like the road trips because they’re able to take naps and don’t have to wake up early in the morning for their kids,” he said.

For the training staff, road trips are definitely not a time for catching up on sleep. “It’s long days and long nights but on the flip side, the players are great to work with and they respect us and understand what we’re trying to do,” Miller said. “Like I said, the only thing that matters is that they’re ready to go the next day. I think our coaching staff does a really good job making sure the players are put in a really good position.”

What helps matters is that Union manager John Hackworth is fully on board with the training and rest requirements.

“It makes our job much easier with Coach Hackworth really understanding how the body works — he knows how hard to push the players and when to back off,” Miller said. “I can honestly say it’s a good team effort as far as, at the end of the day, making sure the players are ready, because that’s all that really matters, that they’re at 100 percent, or given the ability to be at 100 percent on game day.”

4 Comments

  1. The reference to Hackworth at the end is interesting. I wonder if that’s intended as a contrast to the previous regime.

  2. I saw the Union in Terminal F at Philly a few months when they were leaving for the first Montreal match as I was coming back from Canada work trip. Some of those guys are slight.

    But this article – who cares. There are many more road warriors out there who have to scramble on their own to a restaurant for breakfast. For a real challenge try playing in the Russian hockey league – 11 time zone span!

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