WINSLOW — Every winter, it’s the same scene. Wrestlers go to their first practices of the season, coming off a fall spent sharpening their fitness by running sprints in soccer and field hockey, racking up miles in cross country or taking and giving out hits in football.

And for many, fit as they are, those first days pack a punch.

“We had kids physically getting sick after the first couple of practices,” Winslow wrestling coach Dustin Vigue said.

As the wrestlers are quickly reminded, there’s being in shape, and there’s being in wrestling shape. Few sports in high school, if any, meet wrestling’s physical demand, which combines football’s strength requirement with soccer and running’s unrelenting cardio workout.

Maine Central Institute senior Bryce Bussell spent the fall as one of the area’s dominant two-way linemen on the football team, but he said the demands for rounding into form as the Huskies’ 220-pound wrestler require him to push his body even further.

“Football shape is a whole different thing than wrestling,” he said. “Football, you get breaks. But wrestling, it’s all-out, all the time. … Going three rounds with somebody, your lungs aren’t used to it. It’s like a constant sprint, it feels like. That’s the big difference I feel.”

“You’re not only getting cardio, but you’re physically putting your muscles through the fatigue,” Vigue said. “You have to be very flexible. You have to have a lot of muscle endurance, as well as the endurance on your lungs. If you’re running in football or in soccer or whatever and you want to take a quick break in your breathing, you can. But if somebody’s on top of you, they’re not stopping. So you can’t stop.”

Winslow 132-pounder Sam Schmitt said he can tell if he’s not in shape yet.

Winslow’s Jack Dorvall balances on his hands while wrestling Nokomis’ Isaiah Morin in a 170-pound match Wednesday at Winslow High School. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“For me, it’s the last 30 seconds of a period,” he said. “If you’re in soccer shape, football shape, you can wrestle the first minute, 1:30 of a period. The last 30 seconds really push your boundaries.”

Mt. Ararat/Brunswick coach Erick Jensen said he consistently sees people new to the sport floored by what it requires.

“The people that have tried it, it’s just exhausting to them,” he said. “You’re flexing every muscle in your body all at once. It’s not just like long distance running or running in general.”

Add in the masks that wrestlers have had to wear this season, and the path to wrestling shape has become even steeper.

“Wrestling with a mask, I’m not going to say it’s easy,” Vigue said. “I think it’s another obstacle that, if we can learn how to deal with it, it helps you control your breathing, which is great for conditioning. I don’t particularly love it, I roll with the kids, I run, I do everything with them. And it is hard, it’s very hard.”

The path to wrestling shape requires a lot of attention to diet and cardio work — wrestlers spend the first half hour or so of every practice running to get their conditioning base — as well as compound exercises to get the wrestlers used to taxing their bodies over a long period of time.

“A lot of what we do is full-body exercises like you would see in cross fit,” Vigue said. “We run, but we add some weights in there. We do a lot of overhead claps, we do a lot of holding yourself in positions. … Anything you do is just putting yourself in that full body test.”

Nothing, though, gets the body in shape like getting on the mat.

“The best way is to just wrestle,” Schmitt said. “We wrestle for a good 45 minutes at practice, just to get your muscle endurance and your cardio. We do a little bit of that every day, and it gets you into shape quick.”

These practice bouts often have the intensity of a Saturday meet.

“We do a lot of what we call live drilling, so they’re expected to go at full speed,” Jensen said. “At the beginning of the season, they can’t, because they’re still learning moves and you need to take things slow to get it right. But as the season progresses, we want them to drill at match speed.”

Mt. Ararat/Brunswick wrestler Brycen Kowalsky, left, competes with Cony’s Mohammed Alibrahim during a meet on Wednesday in Augusta. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

At the same time, coaches know they can’t run a boot camp and drive their wrestlers too hard, too soon.

“We don’t start heavy in the beginning. You’ve got to build them up over a number of weeks,” Jensen said. “We’ll start hitting our stride probably next week when we’re in really good shape, and then it’s about maintaining and making sure we don’t have injuries, and not working them so hard that we break them down either.”

Sometimes, a break provides a necessary reset.

“You want to keep it fun. You don’t want to have every practice just (be) all conditioning,” Jensen said. “Every now and then, we’ll incorporate a game of soccer or basketball or whatever, so they’re still running, they just don’t know that they’re running.”

There’s no set window for how long it takes wrestlers to reach the level of fitness they need. For some, it’s a couple of weeks. For others, it could be well into the winter.

“It’s usually halfway through the season before I’m comfortable that the kids are in match shape, where if they go into overtime they still can compete well,” Jensen said. “But every kid’s different. It also depends on their size and what they did beforehand. But it usually takes us about half a season to hit our stride.”

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