The pandemic workout: a creative solution

It’s May in Charleston, and the sun hangs low over the Ashley River. The air is dry, with a light breeze. Just beyond four active-duty Marines playing croquet on the green space behind LeTellier Hall, a lone figure sprints across Wilson Field. With the quarantine in effect, Brandon Rainey, the starting quarterback for the Bulldogs, often finds himself in solitude, a strange situation for the star team member of a sport that’s all about togetherness.

Not to be deterred by quarantine orders and social distancing guidelines, Strength and Conditioning Director Donnell Boucher and his staff got creative. An app called TeamBuildr, a smart phone and some exercise demonstration videos on YouTube make up the equipment inventory for Boucher’s virtual gym. The simplicity of the setup was deceiving, and Rainey was surprised to realize that he could get a rigorous workout without access to a gym.

“There’s been a lot of bodyweight work, and it’s been hard actually,” says Rainey. “I was genuinely surprised by how sore I was when we started doing these workouts. I feel as though we really haven’t skipped a beat with everything.”

Boucher has been using the cloud-based TeamBuildr app for four years now. The app allows coaches to create customized workouts to engage with athletes—a useful tool, especially during the off-season. Or when a pandemic unexpectedly interrupts the academic year and the spring training season.

“Because we had a little bit of a head start and the athletes knew what was going on,” says Boucher, “we were able to really dig down into the specifics of what the workouts needed to be in light of the fact that gyms were closed.”

The daily workout schedules are varied, and to keep matters simple while the gyms are closed, Boucher focuses on speed, strength and conditioning across all sports because, as he says, “every team needs those things.”

Each exercise on the daily workout includes a link to a YouTube video demonstrating proper technique, which required a lot of planning and filming for Boucher and his strength and conditioning staff.

“The only way the kids were going be successful was if every single exercise included a demonstration and an explanation,” says Boucher. “We had to develop one program and keep it concise for everybody.”

While the NCAA prohibits Boucher from keeping tabs on which athletes are working out, he is able to see that they are engaged. “The engagement that we’ve had across the board with all 350 athletes is as high as it’s ever been in the previous three years that we’ve used the app. The kids are out there looking for things to do to keep them busy. And ultimately, you know, we designed a workout that was effective. You don’t have to have any equipment, so as long as you can get to an open field or a track, you can have a good workout.”

The interruption in the academic year by the quarantine and the transition to distance learning created a new dynamic for students and an unanticipated off-season. And off-season training, according to Boucher, is critical to success.

“People on the outside don’t realize what a college athlete has to do in the off season, and especially at our school, where they’ve got so many other demands on their time. People don’t realize what our kids go through when they go home—academics are a priority, but our athletes know that if they want a chance to compete when they come back, they have to stay in shape.”

Other strength and conditioning programs across the country have not been as fortunate. Unlike Boucher, many didn’t have an off-season workout that could be converted into a contingency plan.

“It’s taught us another way to do our job, and when we do get back to normal, it’s going to be great. We have this library of exercises and this content that we can get to the teams for when we want to train more remotely in the future.”

Meanwhile, Brandon Rainey, who started in 11 games last season and rushed 240 times for 900 yards and 17 touchdowns, is on the field alone, with the strains of Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel” pulsing through his earbuds for company. He finds comfort in the thought that the quarantine will one day be over and he’ll be back with his teammates.

“These guys truly are some of my best friends. We’re all so close, so it is weird being apart from each other for so long, but we are making the best of it, and we’re all very excited to get back to campus soon and be around each other practicing again.”