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. That season I won my only playing honour, Hartlepool player of the year.
"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. I know you have these young coaches with their clipboards and everything, and 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 season."
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 over the summer by Carl Serrant, the club's strength and conditioning coach. Serrant, who won an England B cap in a career spent primarily at Oldham, said: "They had an eight-week break, that gave them time for active recovery, then four weeks in preparation for pre-season."
The programmes reflect a player's position on the pitch, his body shape, and any lingering injuries. "Several players will go through the season carrying an injury," said Serrant. "The off-season is a good opportunity to recover and then prepare for the new season, making sure they are strong in those areas."
Return to work
When they come back for pre-season the players are tested, weighed and measured. "We do a lot of testing pre-season so we know where the baseline is for their fitness," said head physiotherapist Nigel Cox, who started working with Warnock at Sheffield United. Cox added: "We can use that as a comparison for when they are not fit throughout the season." This is not just a matter of checking heartbeats, body-fat ratios and blood counts. Other tests include musculoskeletal screening and muscle group comparisons. There is also regular massage.
"We use a lot of IT," says Warnock. "We can compare players from one season to the next once they've been here a while. It is more about prevention than cure, identifying weak areas so players can do strengthening programmes. It is amazing how a hamstring or something can be improved with the right work."
Some managers still send their players up mountains. Tony Pulis took Stoke City to Austria for six days of intensive training with one morning's work consisting of a 4km run followed by a dozen back-to-back runs up a steep hill. "Tony's team is in Europe," noted Warnock, "so it obviously works for him."
It is not, though, for Warnock. 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 over the years," said Cox. "The boys can no longer let themselves go over the summer. They know how important it is to come back in similar condition to how they left." Warnock added: "Some come back lighter. They know if they're not at the top of their fitness they might not get into the team. With the money at this level it's worth dedicating yourself for a few years."
Players are constantly monitored for heart rate, sweat loss and body composition, with training adapted accordingly.
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. Tour opposition varied from Europa League finalists Sporting Braga to Tavistock. There were also matches at Crawley and Luton.
"I always tell the players results are not important, it is about fitness and getting used to playing together," said Warnock. "We train every day when we go away, even when we have matches, so it is quite intensive, but at Duchy College the lads can relax by playing golf, while in Italy we got some sunshine on our backs.
"We then come back to our training ground and from about seven to nine days before the season starts we focus on team shape, bedding in new signings. I need them to know how I want them to play, and especially how to play with Adel [Taarabt]."
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."
And what about alcohol? "There's not so much of that these days. If the opportunity is there, the manager likes to foster team spirit and allow the players a night to enjoy themselves here and there, but the guys are really professional. They are aware they are in a period of high-intensity training and know how to manage that."
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. When the cast came off I had to work on building up the muscles, then it was a case of regaining all-round fitness. It was better for me to stay here working than going on tour."
Aside from Mackie, Rangers have only one injury doubt for the opening match, at home to Bolton Wanderers on Saturday, Rob Hulse. There is an element of luck in that. As Bolton have found, with Lee Chung-yong and Tyrone Mears suffering broken legs, players can be injured in friendlies. But the absence of muscle problems, Warnock, Cox and Serrant would argue, is nothing to do with fortune and all to do with good planning and practice. As QPR prepare for their first season back in the top flight in 15 years, they know they need players as fit as possible.
He's back: Read Neil Warnock's weekly column – only in 'The Independent', starting Saturday