VARINA, Va. (WWBT) — The Varina High School football team has taken a new approach to how it conditions its players, especially in the dog days of summer.
The football team underwent a 12-week assessment of VO2 testing from Mike Craven, owner of Mike’s Olympic Gym in Mechanicsville.
“I saw there was a need to measure heat tolerance,” Craven said. “One parallel to a high VO2 is a person’s core temperature — as it rises, you’ve got the ability with more aerobic strength to dissipate the heat faster than kids with underdeveloped circulatory systems.”
Craven, who has worked as a strength and conditioning coach for decades, said the number of football players dealing with heat exhaustion, which in some cases leads to death, during summer practices is unacceptable.
The Varina community knows all too well about the consequences of being overworked in Virginia’s summer heat.
In September 2000, Anthony Craig Lobrano died from a heat stroke he suffered at football practice.
“I think about him every day,” said Varina head football coach Stu Brown.
Since Lobrano’s death, changes were made to football practices to ensure player safety.
“We practice at seven o’clock at night when there’s no heat,” Brown said. “We give the kids all day long to eat and hydrate, stretch and ice. Everything we do in our practice is centered around what we experienced in 2000.”
For the 2019 season, Brown took on a new effort: VO2 testing.
"How much better can we get our cardio respiratory system,” he said. “[It’s] how much blood can your heart pump out and lungs take in oxygen without being overworked and it very much interested us."
“We’re going to take him to a point of exhaustion where we get data to show when the anaerobic system starts to predominate,” Craven said.
A mask connected to a tube, which is then connected to a computer, tracks the amount of oxygen a person takes in compared to the carbon dioxide they breathe out. When the CO2 gets higher than the VO2, that's when you'll notice an athlete slowing down.
“All the cheerleading and all the screaming isn’t going to be able to help him,” Craven said. “You think you’re motivating, but you’re over-motivating because he can’t do it.”
It’s all about aerobic physicality, which was eye opening for the coaching staff.
“I would sit down and tell an individual that he’s not working hard, you know, it’s a football thing,” Brown said. “'You're soft, you can give more,' etc, but no. Once you do this, you realize they're giving everything they got. The heart can't pump out any more blood, the lungs can't take in any more oxygen."
Over a 12-week period, Craven met with the Varina football team to conduct assessments on every player. Each one of them ran on a treadmill at four different intensity levels for various lengths of time.
“It kind of got boring because the guys were pretty much training like cross country runners, they knew the zones, they knew the heart rates… So to go ask a football player to jog for 40 minutes, that’s not something we’re used to.”
But the data revealed some initial weaknesses in some of the players.
"We currently have five kids with big time offers,” Brown said. “What blew our mind was three of them were the most out-of-shape people out here and unless you knew that, you'd never know!"
Since the testing wrapped up, Brown and the coaching staff said they’ve noticed a huge difference.
“They all say, 'coach, we’re in the best shape of our lives,'” he added. “We noticed that in camp too... We’re faster.”
“It’s all about training within the individual’s ability to get them all strong,” Craven said.
Brown added the coaches are still working on an in-season conditioning program for the players based on this assessment and add the experience was worth it.
“I’m pretty much sold on it,” Brown said. “The hardest thing was separating yourself from a football coach; everything is tough, tough, tough. This doesn’t have anything to do with football, it has everything to do with the safety of an individual and building one’s cardio-respiratory system and these kids' safety is first and foremost for us.”
“We’re still in the dark ages when it comes to the correct way to condition,” Craven said. “If we’re going to move forward, like we all should, we’re going to need to have support from sports medicine, the administration and from coaches. People can learn from Varina.”
Craven also linked up with the Patrick Henry High School football team in Hanover County to do the same VO2 testing on the team.
For more information on this type of testing from Craven, click here.