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Finish Strong: NBA Trainers' Push Late-season Fitness

End of season may be all thrills and chills for NBA fans, but to the players and the strength coaches who shape them, this time of year is less about the rush and more about the push—or trying to make it into the postseason after 82 grueling games and nearly 4,000 cumulative minutes of playing and pounding. “This time of year my title as ‘strength coach’ should become ‘recovery management specialist,’” says Pacers head strength and conditioning coach Shawn Windle. “Every player is tired, whether you’re a role player or you’ve never seen the floor.” Fatigue can hit so hard, in fact, that many teams spend just as much time now doing internal damage control as they do inflicting external damage on other teams. Here, Windle and Bryan Doo, head strength and conditioning coach for the Celtics, share 10 ways in which basketball’s best manage to push through to get it done when they’re tired, beat up, and bruised.

Of course, you don’t have to be on an NBA team to benefit from these practices. For any athlete who’s finding the going getting tough, these Tough 10 will keep you going.

1. Ice up

Ice isn’t just for lowering inflammation around smacked-up body parts and sore joints—it’s key to muscle recovery, too. In Indiana, players are encouraged to take ice baths after every practice and game. “Ice helps reduce muscle soreness and starts the recovery process,” Windle says. The Pacers strength coach keeps his players’ tubs at a frosty 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and mandates they stay in the glacial water for up 10 minutes. “It’s not a pleasant experience. I don’t think anyone likes it, and everyone complains about it, but they feel better once they get out,” he says. 

2. Work the bike—or pool

Not all workouts have to take place on court or in the weight room. “We try to keep players off their feet as much as possible this time of year, so we do a lot of bike sprinting and pool work,” says the Celtics’ Doo. His training instrument of choice is a cumbersome-looking stationary bike with a huge fan flywheel—the type you’re likely only to see in a cardiac recovery center. “People laugh at our bikes, but we love them because they tell us the exact resistance and wattage,” says Boston’s strength coach. Doo has his players sprint on the bikes while monitoring their wattage to make sure they’re creating the leg power they need to stay strong on court. “The bike creates good power outputs, it give them the explosion level they want, and there’s no pounding on the knees,” he says. Doo also sends players to the pool for exercises like kickboarding to build leg strength and underwater squat jumps to help fine-tune positioning.

3. Sleep more

It’s not exactly brain science: When you’re tired, you need more sleep. “That’s when the body does most of its repair. That’s when these guys are able to rejuvenate themselves,” Windle says. The Indiana strength coach tells his players to take a 30- to 90-minute nap every day, especially during the postseason, and to try to get eight hours of sleep a night—no easy feat when your schedule is travel-play-train-repeat. “Last night we got back from Chicago at 1 a.m. By the time the guys get home and unwind, it’s like 2:30, and they have to be back to practice the next morning,” Windle says. For this reason, he tells players to shut off their “screens” the moment they get home. “The artificial light from video games, computers, and phones prevents you from feeling sleepy,” he says.

4. Bend a little

Even the buffest of basketball players can benefit from a little downward dog. The Celtics’ Doo adds yoga to his players’ routine to help boost mobility and core strength. “Some guys, when they get to us, they’re strong in their legs and they’re strong in their arms, but they can’t put it together. That’s why we do core and mobility exercises all year,” he says. In Boston, that means lots of planks, rotational exercises with a medicine ball, and push-ups off one foot using a suspension trainer like TRX. “These exercises aren’t just for strength—they’re also for rotational mobility and releasing the pelvis,” Doo says. “These guys get so tight because they’re such freaks with how much muscle they can put on. They need to work on their mobility so those muscles don’t pull at their joints in the wrong way.”

5. Cut the weights

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Sometimes the best workout is not to do a workout. “Every time you walk into the weight room and lift a weight, you’re just adding more stress to your body,” Windle says. “We don’t want to add the extra element of lifting weights if we don’t have to with some of our players.” The Pacers strength coach says he scales back the intensity and frequency of some athletes’ weight sessions to let them focus more on recovery and flexibility. “[Forward] Paul George has been working hard all year, but right now we’re pulling back on his weight work,” he says.

6. Focus on agility

Watch the feet of a power player the next game you catch. Does he step with one foot and then drag the other? That’s a common trait this time of year for weary starters, says Doo, who scrutinizes Boston’s practices to catch the habit in players. “When you’re always jumping, landing, and pushing off, your quads get over-dominant. This shuts off the rest of your muscle groups—your hamstrings stop firing, your glutes stop firing.” To reignite these underused muscles, Doo adds specific agility exercises to players’ routines to help retrain their biomechanics. His go-to is an exercise he calls the “split squat to knee drive.”

To do it, stand straight with one leg behind you, attached at your ankle to an air cable. Sink into a deep squat, keeping your chest tall and the knee of your base leg directly over your ankle; allow your back leg to bend. Next, drive your back leg up to hip level, returning quickly to the deep squat. Driving your arms in the opposite direction as your legs will help fine-tune upper-body mechanics. Start with two sets of eight to 12 reps, changing base legs between sets.

7. Dress to compress

Those black compression tights you see players wear under their shorts aren’t just for games, anymore. Windle says most of Indiana practices in the tights, too, which are known to help stimulate blood flow and clear post-exercise waste on a cellular level. The Pacers strength coach encourages his players to wear a pair when they’re flying and even to sleep in the tights toward the end of season. “We have a couple of guys who aren’t into it, but most of them don’t think twice about [wearing the tights] anymore,” he says, adding that some players, like Indiana center Roy Hibbert, even wear compression boots—large inflatable boots that extend over the thighs and fill with air to add more pressure. Most big-box athletic stores carry compression tights, which can range in price from $30 to $160.

8. Maintain your nutrition

This is not the time of year to start tinkering with your custom protein shake or load up on French fries and soda. “With the length of the season, we always recheck nutrition this time of year to make sure a player’s bodyweight is where it should be and that they’re all eating at the right times,” Windle says. According to the Pacers strength and conditioning coach, players meet regularly with team nutritionists during the regular season and the postseason, too. “We’re not doing anything different this time of year—we just put more emphasis on nutrition now.”

9. Avoid sudden changes

While it’s tempting to think you can benefit from new workouts when you’re bone-tired and sore, end of season is not the time to add unfamiliar elements to your routine that could sabotage your consistency. “We don’t add anything new at the end of the year for the sake of the playoffs,” Windle says. “We just don’t know how the body will respond to a different stimulus, so we keep the stimulus the same.” And thankfully, keeping things same-old/same-old is an easy sell with players, says the Pacers strength coach. “They’re afraid of making changes—these guys are creatures of habit, and they’re pretty in tune with their bodies,” he says. “And we’re afraid, too. We’re afraid of the unknown.”

10.Know yourself

Are you the guy who goes for broke year round, the Kevin Garnett of your pickup basketball team? If so, Doo’s normal rules of recovery don’t apply to you. “When Kevin was with us, we paid a lot of attention to what he does because he works too hard,” says the Celtics strength coach of the Nets center. “In order to go harder later in the year, we had to pull him back, because that guy has only one speed and that speed is hard.” This means that if you’re constantly redlining on game days and in practice, you’ll need to reacquaint yourself with the term “easy day” and apply it more judiciously if you want to continue to play uninjured and at a high level.