Although soccer is the world’s most popular sport, the strength and conditioning and performance development side of the game is extremely lacking compared to other more performance-based sports like track and field. Although the performance of soccer players is highly dependent on the specific technical abilities, there is always room for improvement for every player with respect to physical performance. As I wrote in my previous blog on how Leicester City FC have benefited from the physical performance based approach, strength and conditioning has clear impact on performance on the pitch.
Based on my past experiences with the sport as well as insights from Dr. Mike Young’s idea for conditioning for soccer and an article Strength and Conditioning for Soccer Players, the general guidelines of strength and conditioning for soccer players is outlined.
Before we get into the details, first we need to identify the physical demands of the game. Based on the physical demands of the sport, the sport specific training guidelines could be constructed. Of course, there are distinct demands for different positions and there may be different needs for each player based on various factors such as specific time of the season and injury status. This is a more general approach with respect to the sport. The more specific training plans could be manipulated around the guidelines.
Soccer is characterized as a high-intensity, intermittent, contact team sport that requires a high level of aerobic and anaerobic conditioning, speed, agility, strength, and power (Turner & Stewart, 2014). Young (2014) also stated that the game is flawed with steady-state slow running, but rather, it is identified as short burst of high-intensity straight ahead acceleration with intermittent rest periods of very low and moderate activity such as a walk or jog.
Building on from the analysis of the physical demands of the game, the physical qualities that the soccer players need to focus on to develop include both aerobic and anaerobic capacity (lactic and alactic), speed, agility, strength, and power. The qualities may fall under another’s category and may also overlap one another in terms of training means and methods. It is important to develop all of the qualities with a holistic approach in order to develop athletes’ overall physical qualities for high performance of the sport.
Improving aerobic capacity has many benefits to the performance on the pitch. Some of the benefits include increased distance covered, number of sprints, high intensity efforts, involvements with the ball, and running economy. Higher aerobic capacity was also linked with higher league position and level of competition, and more starters compared with nonstarters (Turner & Stewart, 2014).
Traditional Continuous Method
Although many studies suggest that the effect of interval method outweigh traditional continuous steady-state running method, the traditional continuous method still has its role in developing aerobic capacity, especially in off-season. In this method, the intensity and duration must meet appropriately to stress the aerobic stimulus. The training plan may be manipulated, but generally recommended to be between 15-60 minutes of duration of 70-85% max HR (Young, 2014).
Interval Method (MAS, Extensive Tempo, HIIT)
The studies indicate numerous benefits of interval method outweighing traditional steady-state running; interval method requires less training time, less likely to be detrimental to strength/power with type 2 muscle fiber recruitment, and greater VO2max improvement. There are various means and methods to incorporate interval methods to develop aerobic capacity which are described in following:
Maximal Aerobic Speed (MAS)
MAS is physiologically defined as the lowest speed at which VO2max occurs (Baker & Heaney, 2015). In sports like soccer, a field sport with high running demand (i.e. distance covered), higher MAS is linked with greater chance of success in the sport (Baker & Heaney, 2015). For reference, Baker & Heaney (2015) illustrated normative MAS for soccer players for comparison – Italian Serie A: 4.91 m/s, English Premier League: 4.85 m/s, French Ligue 1: 4.75 m/s (note that the different tests were used for each league). The general trend shows that as the level of competition improves, MAS is higher – particularly the ones using same test protocol with a comparable level of competition (i.e. Norwegian leagues, Brazilian youth teams).
The common protocol for training MAS is 15/15 method – 15 seconds of running at or above 100% MAS score with 15 seconds of rest. The set/rep schemes could be manipulated accordingly. Incorporating ball and/or change of direction may be appropriate to add specificity and variety to training. For athletes with low aerobic capacity, MAS training may reach anaerobic lactate component (vomit inducing training load). It is also identified according to the analysis of physiological demand of soccer, that the game rarely gets into anaerobic lactate energy system during the match opposed to what many people may have thought. Although anaerobic lactic capacity may not be a critical factor in soccer fitness, it has its role in training efficiency.
Tempo runs are interval runs directed to develop work capacity that is mostly used in track and field. Hansen (2014) explained that the extensive tempo runs in particular is “performed strictly in the aerobic energy zone and promotes general fitness development and recovery via circulatory mechanisms” (para. 3). Hansen (2014) suggests that extensive tempo runs to be kept at 70% of best time for given distance and 60-65% for beginners who are not familiar with tempo runs. More generally speaking, it is suggested to be 65-75% of maximal speed. This would be relevant to an athlete with a best time for 100m with 12.00 second to run 100m at around 16-17 seconds (65-75% range) and around 18.5-20 seconds for beginners (60-65% range). The intervals could be broken down to between 100-400m with 50-120m of walking recoveries between reps depending on the running distance. Total recommended distance for soccer players is 4-5000m, developing athletes for the lower side and elite for the higher distance (Hansen, 2014). One of my colleagues, Greg Gustin, had a great discussion comparing extensive tempo and MAS; concluded that a sport that require speed with large aerobic and glycolytic demand may benefit from MAS followed by tempo/speed work.
High intensity interval training (HIIT)
HIIT is a very broad term, but Bucheit and Laursen laid out nicely as “either repeated short (20-30 s, sprint interval session) all-out sprints, interspersed with recovery periods” (as cited in Weston, Taylor, Batterham, & Hopkins, 2014, p. 1006). Following the context, aerobic fitness training such as MAS and tempos could both fall into HIIT by the former part of definition; anaerobic speed training and repeat sprint ability (RSA) training fall into latter part of definition which will be further discussed later in the context. At university prep soccer prep program, which just finished last week at Athletic Lab (produced great result – check out our results by following the link), we have used HIIT – 4 sets of 4 minutes of fartlek (unstructured training that blends continuous and interval training, intensity/speed varies as athlete chooses to) type of runs that had mixture of extensive and intensive tempo (faster paced run with short recovery periods – anaerobic threshold) in a structured format with 3-4 minutes of rest between set. Similarly, Turner and Stewart (2014) also revealed that greater improvement in VO2max was achieved by HIIT of 4×4-min interval at 90-95% HRmax with 3 minute of active resting periods at 70% HRmax compared to steady-state trainings.
Anaerobic (Alactic) Capacity
Speed, strength, and power all lie under the umbrella of anaerobic alactic capacity. Speed development in soccer is of great importance, as my previous article suggests. Improved strength and power has positive correlation to performance on the pitch, particularly with jumping height, sprint, and aerobic capacity/efficiency.
According to research, about 96% of sprints in soccer are less than 30m in distance, less than 6 seconds of duration occurring every 90 seconds on average; almost half are less than 10m within prior motion (Turner & Stewart, 2014). Therefore, sprint from various starting position (i.e. two-point start, flying start, prone/supine start, varying movements before sprints) may have a good relevance to the specifics of the game. Adding other variables such as change of direction (COD), jumps/headers, and start-stops may be incorporated but should not take away from the true linear speed development (Young, 2014). Speed training should be emphasized on proper mechanics and maximal intensity/effort. A general guideline of speed training is rep length of 10-40m, work:rest of 1:20-40, over total volume of 160-300m (Young, 2014).
Repeat Sprint Ability (RSA)
RSA is described as the ability to perform sprints repeatedly with minimal rest/recovery. In the analysis of modern game, RSA along with number of high intensity activities are known to be a good indicator of performance on the pitch. RSA should build on from speed development since there is no point having ‘repeated slow speed ability’. There are some limitations to RSA training. It is labeled as ‘a sprint’ training but it requires minimal rest – which goes against all the sprint training fundamentals. With small rest/recovery time between runs, the energy supply lacks and fatigue builds up – athletes would not be able to produce true max speed for every repetition. Although it goes against speed training principles, it may be the sport specific quality that the modern game requires. Here, addition of other variables such as COD may be appropriate. The guideline is as 10-30m/rep over total distance of <300m, work-to-rest of 1:5-10 (Young, 2014). Again, the intensity must be maximal or very close to maximal (95-100%).
Agility is a commonly misled component for many. One of my colleagues Riley Rogers wrote a great discussion about agility. Basically, agility not only involves COD by itself, but it involves cognitive aspect of quick decision making abilities. Thus, the agility training that many people think of – ladder drills – is not true agility training. As Riley suggested, decision based training such as partner mirror running and small-sided games are a great way to incorporate agility training. COD involves quick transition from deceleration to acceleration; the deceleration in particular is of great importance because it initiates the transition. Deceleration involves eccentric force application – it could be stressed from eccentric overloading through strength/plyometric training or sprint-stop action from sprint training.
Small-Sided Games (SSG)
SSG is a sport-specific means of training that could target many aspects of training, including physiological capacities (both aerobic and anaerobic), technical, and tactical aspects of game. Varying set/rep intervals, pitch dimensions, number of players, and rules all affect the training intensity and purposes in terms of both physiological and technical/tactical demands. Typically, number of high intensity activities and play with the ball (possession) is higher in SSG compared to the normal game. Higher number of players in SSG decreases intensity and involvement with ball, technical component diminishes, but tactical component are greatly stressed. As the dimensions become larger, the workload increases as there are more distances to cover but the agility component (COD, acceleration, and deceleration) reduces as the time and space available for decision making process rises. Addition of goalkeepers to SSG decreased distance covered, intensity, and tactically became more defensive (Turner & Stewart, 2014).
Strength & Power
There is abundant research about how improving maximal strength is involved with numerous performance benefits such as improved acceleration, power development, running economy through neuromuscular benefits, and reducing injury risks. The general guidelines for strength training is having a holistic approach to train whole body incorporating multi-joint exercises through full range of motion, with high load/low rep scheme or moderate load/explosive emphasis (velocity emphasis). Emphasizing velocity in strength training allows athletes to produce more power. Olympic lifts are a great tool to develop power but they are not the only ones. Depending on the athletes, you may or may not teach Olympic lifts. When it is not appropriate to incorporate Olympic lifts, other lower body explosive movement based exercises (i.e. squat jumps) could be selected.
It is very hard to put the training methods into categories because training methods like SSG train multiple qualities at a single activity. Choosing these types of activities may be suitable during the season for time efficiency. These are just general qualities and training methods that may be incorporated into many teams. Depending on varying situations, knowing how and when to incorporate different activities (mix and match) into specific time of the season are the skills that coaches need to learn.
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