The 49ers are hoping morning practices and vigorous workouts the day before games will provide some extra pep Sunday in Carolina and help them improve on last year’s feeble road record.
Both are part of Chip Kelly’s sports-science approach to conditioning, which drew some jeers when he was in Philadelphia, but has the 49ers feeling good about themselves heading into their first road game of the season.
“I actually really, really loved it,” left tackle Joe Staley said about practicing at a brisk pace the day before the 49ers’ Week 1 game against the Rams. “I felt really good. It makes sense. I’ve always thought that: Why do we practice so hard during the week and then before the game we really don’t do anything?”
The question is whether the 49ers’ new approach can help boost their 1-7 road record from last season. Five of those games began at 10 a.m. Pacific, which is when the 49ers and Panthers get underway Sunday. The average score of those early contests: 29-15.
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This year the 49ers have begun all of their practices in the 10 a.m. hour, which Kelly said takes better of advantage of an athlete’s circadian rhythm – the regular changes they experience in a 24-hour cycle.
“We’re an early-morning practice team,” he said. “We’re out on the field, we’re working. … So our guys are hopefully in a rhythm to get used to playing in that situation.”
Kelly also has changed the weekly practice schedule.
In the past, the 49ers were like nearly every NFL team: They had a leisurely walk-through practice the day before kickoff. As the season wore on, the players did a little less in that session under the theory that it made no sense to do strenuous exercise the day before a contest.
Under Kelly, the 49ers begin practice on Tuesday, an off-day for players in the rest of the NFL. The 49ers get Monday off. The team’s most vigorous session of the week is on Thursday followed by a light practice Friday. Then on Saturday the 49ers have another full-speed session that lasts just short of an hour.
There’s no hitting, or course. The goal is for players to work up a sweat and to start ramping up for the next day’s contest.
“We slow it down two days before to let our bodies rest and heal,” linebacker Michael Wilhoite said. “And then the day before (the game) we pick it up a little more, create new blood and get the heart pumping and the blood flow moving.”
Said Staley: “You kind of have stale blood in there and you kind of feel stiff. I think it’s really beneficial, especially for the morning games. We’ll have a good workout and feel good. It’s not like we’re out there banging. But we’re moving around; we’re getting a sweat going. It’s not going to tear you up, but you’re definitely getting a good stretch and you’re getting the blood moving.”
Removing “stale blood” and creating “new blood” might not be the precise science behind the concept. But the idea is to avoid a lull in activity the day before the game. Kelly has said he’s gotten the idea from trainers who work with Olympic-level track-and-field athletes.
The routine received positive reviews early on in Kelly’s three-year tenure with the Eagles. Later, however, some players complained that the practice schedule wore them down over the course of a season. New Eagles coach Doug Pederson this year eliminated or scaled back many of the sports-science ideas Kelly instituted.
The 49ers, meanwhile, raved that their energy level during Monday’s win over the Rams was excellent, although they noted there probably would have been plenty of electricity no matter how they trained because it was the first game of the season.
Said Wilhoite: “I guess the verdict for the way we’re approaching it will be more seen come Week 8, Week 9 – when we need that extra rest.”