Small sided games or running for fitness?

I’ve talked to a handful of coaches and soccer fitness coaches and most take a firm stance on this issue. Most coaches seem to prefer soccer specific fitness using small-sided games. The argument is that the fitness is more applicable to the sport. Many fitness coaches, especially those not from a soccer background, seem to prefer interval, repetition or steady state running to enhance fitness. The argument here is that one is able to work harder on the physical capacities when the ball isn’t involved.

I tend to sit somewhere in the middle. I think both have their pros and cons. I love ?small- sided game scenarios for fitness development but the variables (specific goals, players involved, field dimensions, work:rest ratios, etc)?are important to achieve the desired outcome and I work with our technical staff to do this. The overwhelming majority of the fitness that I control, is without the ball. Not involving the ball allows you to focus on the effort and physical goals rather than the technical goals. There’s some research evidence that this is absolutely necessary for soccer players to achieve the highest levels of performance.

The following study backs up my moderate viewpoint (at least in terms of aerobic stimulus) showing that you don’t lose match performance with non-specific fitness training and you don’t lose fitness with small-sided games.

Int J Sports Med.?2006 Jun;27(6):483-92.

Physiological and performance effects of generic versus specific aerobic training in soccer players.


Human Performance Lab, S. S. MAPEI, Castellanza, Varese, Italy.


The aim of this study was to compare the effects of specific (small-sided games) vs. generic (running) aerobic interval training on physical fitness and objective measures of match performance in soccer. Forty junior players were randomly assigned to either generic (n=20) or specific (n=20) interval training consisting of 4 bouts of 4 min at 90-95 % of maximum heart rate with 3 min active rest periods, completed twice a week. The following outcomes were measured at baseline (Pre), after 4 weeks of pre-season training (Mid), and after a further 8 weeks of training during the regular season (Post): maximum oxygen uptake, lactate threshold (Tlac), running economy at Tlac, a soccer-specific endurance test (Ekblom’s circuit), and indices of physical performance during soccer matches (total distance and time spent standing, walking, and at low- and high-intensity running speed). Training load, as quantified by heart rate and rating of perceived exertion, was recorded during all training sessions and was similar between groups. There were significant improvements in aerobic fitness and match performance in both groups of soccer players, especially in response to the first 4 weeks of pre-season training. However, no significant differences between specific and generic aerobic interval training were found in any of the measured variables including soccer specific tests. The results of this study showed that both small-sided games and running are equally effective modes of aerobic interval training in junior soccer players.

The following two tabs change content below.

Mike Young

Director of Performance at Athletic Lab
Mike is the Head Fitness Coach for the North Carolina Courage and North Carolina FC. He is also the owner and Director of Performance at Athletic Lab sports performance training center. He previously served as the fitness coach for the Vancouver Whitecaps and Carolina Railhawks. He has a PhD in Biomechanics, an MS in Coaching Science, and a BSS in Exercise Physiology and has coached Olympic and professional athletes in Skeleton, Track & Field, MLS and NASL Soccer, PGA Golf, NFL Football, MLB Baseball and Olympic Weightlifting. He has lectured around the world and authored 2 books and dozens of research and coaching articles.