Guide on Return to play (RTP) testing protocol for football

Return to football testing

Anyone who’s had to miss football for weeks or months with injury knows how nervous you feel when you make your return.

“Am I ready?”…”Can I still do that?”…”Will I get injured again?”…

So we’ve devised a return to play (RTP) protocol to help you figure out:

  • if you’re ready,
  • if your performance is back to 100%, and
  • if you’re likely to survive your return without a greater risk of injury.

This RTP protocol assists in your safe return to sport. It can be performed as a testing protocol on game day or as a rehab program for the week before returning to training.

Rather than providing specific targets (eg. 40m sprint in 6 seconds), it provides return to play guidelines that can work for athletes of any level. It relies on an “honest” effort from the player so verbal encouragement during testing helps improve the intensity of each phase.

The structure of the graduated return to play protocol is designed with small safe increments in mind. This avoids going from an easy jog to a flat out sprint and re-injuring the area.

The testing targets a number of key performance aspects. It works effectively, whether you’re looking to return to sport after a grade 2 ankle sprain or a torn quad muscle.

Here are the different rules governing each approach.


GAME DAY TESTING

  1. Perform this test on the same surface you’ll be playing on (eg. synthetic grass) and wearing the same footwear as game day (eg. Football boots)
  2. Perform each stage in sequence
    • Eg. Stage 1, stage 2 x 6 reps, stage 3 x 6 reps, etc
  3. If you experience sharp pain, worsening pain or prolonged ache after any stage, DON’T PLAY THAT WEEK and retest it the following week.

PROGRAM FOR RETURN TO TRAINING

  1. Perform this test on the same surface you’ll be playing on (eg. synthetic grass) and wearing the same footwear as game day (eg. Football boots)
  2. If you’re performing this as a rehab program, perform all stages up to the stage AFTER your previous finishing point
    • Eg. Day 1 – stage 1, day 2 – stage 1+2, day 3 – stage 1+2+3, etc
  3. If you experience sharp pain, worsening pain or prolonged ache immediately after or the morning after any stage, remain at the same level for another day.
    • If it’s still sore on the next day’s testing, drop back to the previous level for the following day

THE RTP PROTOCOL

  1. Easy jog for 5min to warm up (increase this to 10min in cold weather)
  2. Straight line 60% intensity run for 20m x 6 repetitions – slowly build to 60% effort over 5m, hold that pace for 10m, gradually slow down over 5m
  3. Sprint start 75% intensity run for 20m x 6 reps – build pace over a shorter take off, hold, then gradually slow down over 5m
  4. Sprint start/fast stop for 20m x 6 reps – sprint from standing start, hold that pace for 20m then stop quickly
  5. Shuttle sprints x 12 reps – sprint start, hold for 20m, then stop and pivot before sprinting back to the start point. Alternate turning left and right on each repetition, to total 6 reps turning in each direction
  6. “S” runs x 6 reps – sprint start then run around cones or markers with smooth turns (ie. an “S” shape), aiming for 6 turns over 30m
  7. “Z” runs x 6 reps – as per #6 with sharper turns (ie. “Z” shape)
  8. “T” runs x 6 reps – sprint through a “T” shape while facing the same direction throughout. Starting at the bottom of the “T” and sprinting 10m forward, quick stop, 5m left while still facing forward, 10m right, 5m left then run backwards 10m to the starting point

The next steps from this point relate to your sport and your position. Aim to challenge the specific skills and situations faced in the game. Design a series of tests that progress from planned uncontested movements to unplanned uncontested movements (such as change of direction based on another person pointing or throwing a ball mid-sprint). Finally, progress to unplanned contested movements such as challenging for a ball or running with unplanned body contact.

Once completed, you’re ready to return to training and game conditions. You still have an elevated risk of injury due to your absence from full training and recent injury episode. But you can now be confident that you’re ready for agility running and contested situations.

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