Neil Warnock still vividly remembers the pre-season training he underwent at Hartlepool 40 seasons ago under the fearsome former Royal Marine Tony Toms. One night he'll never forget was spent on the Yorkshire Moors. Toms gave each player a chocolate bar and a sheet of polythene, and sent them to sit on their own in the dark. He then crept up on them one by one, scaring the wits out of them with a tap on the shoulder. Once together, the squad competed for an extra ration of food – the loser was thrown in a river. Warnock narrowly avoided that fate, but the player who went in was left shivering by the camp fire under his polythene. Come morning the players, without any cash, were told to find their way home (Warnock reversed charges from a phone box and got a lift).
The QPR manager's other memory is of Toms' day-to-day training. "All my career I'd had to do cross-country runs and jog up sand dunes. Under Tony we never ran more than 400 yards and we'd do that over hurdles to break our stride and think about things while running. It was all short sprints."
Fortunately, for QPR's players, it was the second practice Warnock went on to adopt when he became a manager. "It was the best pre-season I ever had," he recalled when we met at Rangers' Heathrow training ground this week. "I was a winger and I had never felt as sharp. "When I went into management I remembered that feeling. I've changed a few things, I do circuits and more work with the ball, but I've pretty much stuck to the same routine. We do use heart monitors and other technological aids, but I think an experienced manager knows when a player is right, and when he needs a bit more. I certainly don't think any team will be fitter than us." This is how that fitness is achieved:
Before the players went away at the end of last season, they were each given a programme to follow by the club's strength and conditioning coach. The programmes reflect a player's position, his body shape, and any lingering injuries.
Return to work
When they come back for pre-season the players are tested, weighed and measured "so we know where the baseline is for their fitness" said head physiotherapist Nigel Cox. This is not just a matter of checking heartbeats, body-fat ratios and blood counts. Other tests include musculoskeletal screening and muscle group comparisons.
The longest run any Rangers player made in pre-season was 400m. "We do a lot of exercises that relate to players' positions," said Serrant. "We work to exercise certain muscle groups. There is a phase of pure running, to give the guys a base, but after those four or five days we do everything with a ball."
Whatever a manager's philosophy, pre-season is now about honing fitness, not losing pounds of summer excess. "That's been the big change," said Cox. "The boys can no longer let themselves go over the summer."
As last season, when they went on to win the Championship, Rangers took pre-season tours to Cornwall and Italy. In the West Country they worked on their fitness at Duchy College and played three games in five days. They then had six days in Italy where they played one full match, and two 45-minute matches on the same night.
Although the players tend to come back from their break in good shape, pre-season tours are, said Serrant, perfect for reminding players of good eating habits.
"At home we provide breakfast and lunch but on tour we have full control, three main meals a day, snacks in between. The diet depends on what the players have been doing. It's not all pasta and fruit. If they haven't done much running they don't need carbs, instead they might need protein to support strength training, helping with muscle growth and repair."
One senior player missed out on Italy, Jamie Mackie. The striker suffered a bad leg break in January and stayed behind to continue his recuperation. Mackie, who is close to a return, said in between sessions in the weights room: "It's been a long slog but I'm fit now and just waiting for the all-clear to resume playing."Reuse content