Premier League's unprecedented summer: 4,000 calories on matchday, more risk of injuries, overused pitches
Football is back, but not quite as we know it. There are no crowds, there aren't supposed to be player handshakes or high-fives and, in some cases, teams are being forced to change in temporary cabins in the stadium car park in order to ensure that social distancing measures can be met as the sport adjusts to the new reality of living in the coronavirus era.
Coping with summer football is another challenge. It's true that most summers have some form of major international competition, which tests the physical and psychological limits of the world's elite players; but top-level club football at this time of the year is unprecedented, and make no mistake, it will look and feel different for everybody.
Many within the game are bracing themselves for a bumpy ride as they attempt to combine a packed fixture schedule -- the Premier League is staging 92 games in the space of 47 days -- with the strict medical guidelines imposed to enable Project Restart to get off the ground. Training routines have had to be redrawn, treatment and recovery must take place without basic rehabilitation aids and players must even learn how to feed themselves -- seriously! Even the pitches will be different.
- What did you miss? The latest from Europe's top leagues
- Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
"People always talk about the demands of playing over the Christmas period, with three or four games in less than two weeks [for each team], but in order to get the season finished, it will be like three Christmases at once," Tom Little, a sports scientist and nutritionist, told ESPN. "As a result, footballers are going to have to eat differently and train differently.
"For instance, a player would usually need to intake around 3,700 calories on a matchday and 3,000 on a regular training day. But with the heavy load of games ahead during the summer, they will need to be taking on at least 4,000 calories on matchday. They will need to vastly step up their intake of carbohydrates on matchday, and the day before and day after, and ensure they get enough protein to repair muscles after games."
"And because clubs are not allowed to feed players at the training grounds because of the COVID-19 regulations -- players usually have breakfast and lunch at the club -- they will have to learn how to fuel themselves," Little continued. "Education will be important."
Little, head of performance at EFL Championship team Preston North End, has previously worked with Manchester City and Burnley, and he has devised a nutrition app, Colour Fit, which is now used by Man City, Burnley, Manchester United and Newcastle United, among others. He admits that footballers have become increasingly aware of the importance of eating the right foods, but the challenge facing many of them in the weeks ahead will be whether they can adequately refuel without relying on the club chef.
"Nutrition is hugely important, which is why clubs provide breakfast and lunch at the training grounds, as well as meals ahead of games," Little said. "Players don't have that right now, but if they keep it nice and simple, they can still eat wisely.
"Porridge or overnight oats -- which is porridge soaked with milk or yogurt, with fruit, nuts and seeds -- is a perfect pretraining meal. Pancakes, granola, even toast with fruit will ensure they can train with the right fuel intake, but these are things many players wouldn't have had to consider until now."
Fitness will be crucial ahead of such a busy fixture schedule, but a necessity to minimise contact on the training pitch has led to sessions being strictly limited to 75 minutes. Little admits that the truncated preseason has necessitated a change of approach, meaning eight-a-side and 11-a-side games have replaced five-a-sides in order to keep players further apart. But there are question marks over whether players will be fit enough to play as usual and avoid injuries caused by a lack of competitive action since English football was suspended on March 13. (The IFAB has approved a temporary change to the rules around substitutions, meaning teams can make five switches during games, to hopefully mitigate the risks of a condensed, intensive schedule to finish the 2019-20 season.)
Following the NFL Lockout in 2011, when players were unable to use club facilities to train during an 18-week period of union action, a study by The Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy noted an "unprecedented number of Achilles tendon ruptures" once players returned to training and competitive games. The theory was that an extended period of being unable to train properly led to muscle wastage, while joints and tendons were more exposed to serious injury. Premier League footballers have not played competitively for over 100 days, so will they also face an increased injury risk?
"A big part of football, and training within it, is explosive action," Patrick Bradley, a sports physiotherapist, told ESPN. "Even if it's just kicking a football, the pace and power with which a Premier League footballer does that requires a physical explosion that they have not had for several weeks.
"Hamstrings and thighs are the fire and power muscles. Players will have started sprinting in training to help build those muscles up again, but you can't mimic what happens in a game. Even though players will have been given tailored training programmes during the lockdown, I would still expect them to encounter problems like tendonitis and issues with ankles, knees and hamstrings when they start playing again."
"Without access to their usual facilities or training games, they will have been doing more running and more repetitive stuff, rather than the sports-specific training they would do ordinarily, so it will inevitably take time to build everything back up again," Bradley continued. "The problem, however, is they've had a reduced preseason, and with so many games, the only chance to build that fitness will come when they are playing, because everything else will be focused on recovery."
Recovery and rehabilitation also have been impacted by the coronavirus safety measures. After games and training, players are only able to receive "minimal" therapy for a maximum of 15 minutes, which is another challenge for those charged with looking after a club's multimillion-pound assets.
"Players can't have massages, and cryotherapy is also not allowed," sports scientist Little told ESPN. "Clubs can only provide single-use ice baths, so they will obviously be very limited. These may seem like trivial issues, but recovery is a crucial element for any athlete; and there is a risk of more injuries occurring because some rehab elements aren't available, especially with away teams having to get on a coach and drive home without an overnight stay."
Bradley, who worked with England's rugby union team, believes that the inability to perform their usual postmatch routines will test the resolve of many players.
"In my experience, elite performers can become fixated, and even obsessed, with their routines," Bradley said. "From a physical and psychological point of view, they get reassurance from having a massage, ice-bath or stretching programme and if that is taken away, it could slow down their recovery.
"If they are having to get in their car straight after training, I would tell my players to drive home, have a hot bath and then stretch for 20 to 30 minutes to elongate their muscles and diminish the risk of stiffening up, which, in turn, reduces the threat of injury."
Once on the pitch, the old problem of playing on hard surfaces during the summer has become less of an issue as a result of sports science that has ensured all Premier League pitches feel the same whether they are used in August or December. But there will still be post-lockdown differences, some more subtle than others.
"We would normally keep the grass around 23 to 25 millimetres [0.9 to 1 inch] through the season," David Roberts, the head grounds person at Liverpool, told ESPN. "But during the summer, we have kept it at 21 millimetres [0.8 inch], and we will probably keep it the same once the games start. It's all about how quick we can keep the ball moving on the surface without compromising losing the grass cover. Too short and it wears away quickly; too long and the ball holds up when the grass dries out.
"We go a lot by the feedback we get from the coaches and what we see with our own eyes on how the ball interacts with the pitch."
And while footballers, and fans, have been frustrated during three months without football, Roberts admits that even the Anfield pitch has needed special attention.
"Keeping on top of the pitch during lockdown has been difficult," he said. "Premier League pitches are like a Premier League player: We can't just walk away and leave it. We have to keep on top of nutrition and a minimum maintenance regime to keep it ticking along and ready for the return of competitive games, much like the players have been keeping on top of fitness getting ready for the restart.
"But it's inevitable, on a sunny day or warm, breezy evening, that the water will evaporate quickly and the pitch will dry out. There isn't much we can do about that once the game starts, apart from hope that the ball runs well and we win."