Conditioning: Soccer


The best prescription for fitness is to follow a strength and conditioning protocol that emphasizes a solid but simple strength base (preferably programmed with primary, compound barbell lifts) combined with appropriate conditioning. “Appropriate conditioning” depends on the task and needs to address those particulars. The problem is people either fail to learn the particulars or just ignore what they find.

Association Football (Soccer) are particularly guilty of this.

First, you have to videotape a game with a camera that doesn’t follow the ball. Then play it back while you focus on one player, recording every movement they make while estimating the pace and distance they run. Then rewind and do it all over again for the next player. Labor and time intensive is an understatement for these projects.

The first time-motion study over a full season was done on Everton FC (Liverpool, England) in the mid-1970s and the estimated distance covered was just under 8,800 meters per game.

Movement speeds were walking, jogging, cruising (‘running with manifest purpose and effort’), sprinting, and backing. About 2/3 of the distance was covered at the low intensities of walking and jogging and around 800 meters sprinting in numerous short 10-40 meter bursts. A player was in control of the ball for an average of 200 meters for a whopping total of 90 seconds (that means you spend 88.5 minutes trying to get or keep someone from getting the ball).

Recording every change of speed and direction showed that there was some change in activity every 5-6 seconds. Subsequent work and maturation of the game has pushed this total distance up to around 10,000 meters for a men’s professional European game with the South American game being contested at a little less total running distance.

Midfielders run the most, central strikers and defenders the least. Don’t brag too much about the running volume–10,000 meters (six miles) in 90 minutes is four miles per hour, something a good power walker can do.

The physiological intensity of the game can be estimated one of those heart monitors you see joggers and cyclists wearing. The average heart rate for the full 90 minutes ranges between 150-170 beats per minute with very high values while sprinting and more moderate values when less involved in the game.

One interesting observation that doesn’t take an “A” license to figure out: the most physically intense part of the game is while in control of the ball.

Your pulse rate goes up and lactic acid production (that heavy feeling in your legs you perceive after sprinting) increases. This is a primary reason why coaches sets up lots of small sided games that force players to be ‘on the ball’ far more often than during 11 v 11.

Generally, the women’s game is a little less running and at a slower pace (about 75 percent of the women’s game is at a walk/jog), but when conditions demand it, the women can cover just as much distance as the men.

And, realize that women have a smaller capacity, so when they cover the same distance as men playing the same game on the same field for the same time as men, they are working harder.

Now that we know some details about the game, the focus of training begins to become clearer. The other pieces in the training puzzle are game tactics.

Except, as is commonly the problem, people fail to do something useful with the info. Soccer players continue the same failed path as the military, with an overemphasis on long, slow cardio and little else.

Consider that formal game analysis revealed that midfielders – the players that run the most – manage about six miles in 90 minutes, which is a walking pace. Any modestly-fit person won’t find this a problem. A better emphasis would be to continue practicing skills, scrimmaging with your team while getting generally strong and adding in some intervals either at the end of practice or spaced throughout the week.

More important than this, soccer is statistically among the most dangerous sports based on the number of injuries per hundred participant hours. This makes strength training a needed injury preventative. FIFA released their FIFA 11+ Injury Prevention protocol and had some successful results with it:

Click to access english.pdf

The problem is, the light calisthenics used in this warmup only had a positive effect because soccer players as a population are weak enough for this to provide any benefit. Much as the U.S. Army’s physical therapy-based fitness program in FM 7-22, such “prehab” exercises only help a target population lacking a general but thorough strength base.

Here’s an example of a better approach.

Strength Training Makes You a Better Soccer Player

Soccer is Dangerous

Soccer players are hurt quite often. The injury rate is 62 per 1000 hours. Powerlifting, interestingly, has an injury rate of 0.008 per 1000 hours. Knee injuries are common, especially for women. One review found the rate for female soccer players in college sports to be 0.31 ACL injuries per 1000 athlete exposures. To give you some perspective, the rate of ACL injury for college football players ranges from 0.124 to 0.173 injuries per 1000 athlete exposures. Soccer players are about twice as likely to injure their anterior cruciate ligaments as football players.

Stronger is Safer

More training of the muscle equals more protection. Think about the structure of the knee. It is a loose, mobile joint protected by ligaments, but also protected by the quadriceps and hamstrings. The quadriceps pulls the tibia by means of the patellar tendon, in which is the kneecap. When the knee is flexed, such as at the bottom of a properly done squat, the patella applies pressure to the joint capsule, acting as a built-in knee wrap. The hamstring muscles pull the tibia to the rear, counteracting the pull of the quadriceps and helping to keep the knee stable. In addition, there is a stretch reflex when a muscle is quickly stretched. The muscle contracts to protect the joint. If I grab your arm and jerk it, you will quickly contract to resist my pull. More muscle, more resistance. Now imagine the situation on the soccer field when you make a quick plant of the foot and turn, or when you collide with another player: there will be very sharp tugs on your leg musculature. Wouldn’t you want to be strong in order to resist damage to your knee?

In fact, studies have shown that greater strength helps prevent injuries. Why don’t they just lift weights? It’s actually rather infuriating to read these journal articles and find that no one recommends a simple strength program. If being stronger keeps you from getting injured, why not just get stronger? We know that Olympic weightlifters, who squat deep every day, have very strong knees, very few knee injuries, and healthier and thicker connective tissue in the joint. Coaches might fear that their athletes will get slower, there might be lack of time to institute a proper strength training routine, or more likely there might be a lack of understanding of the general adaptation syndrome and how to use it to get stronger.

Sixth World Congress on Science and Football Proceedings: Effects of hypertrophy and a maximal strength training programme on speed, force and power of soccer players. g. BogdANiS, A. PAPASPyRou, A. SougliS, A. TheoS,A. SoTiRoPouloS ANd m. mARidAKi

Isokinetic strength of quadriceps-hamstring muscle in soccer players playing in different leagues. Zekiye Nisa Özberk, Özlem Öner-Coskun, Sabire Akın and Feza Korkusuz

“Skill Specific” Exercise Considered Harmful

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It has become trendy among the unenlightened to invent novel ways to add resistance to certain skill-specific movements. To the uninformed, this seems like a good idea. The exercise now mimics the skill (sort of) so now we’re simultaneously exercising and improving skill. Good idea, except for the fact it doesn’t work and may be detrimental.

Just as bad, the people promoting this are often doing so out of financial motivation by offering a class or product tie-in. They can’t prove their approach is “better” but it offers the illusion of being scientific and the ad looks good. Operators are standing by! Order now!

Here is why this approach is wrong.

Using artificial resistance as some pseudo skill-specific movement is a bad idea. You’re practicing to overcome resistance that won’t normally be there and this will likely will have a negative influence on skill development. A skill-specific movement needs to be specific to the skill if it is to be trained properly. Swinging an abnormally heavy bat or club interferes with the movement pattern used with the normally weighted one and changes things. Adding tension/resistance straps requires overcoming forces in amounts and directions that aren’t normally there, embedding a motor pattern different from what you need.

Kind of odd that instructors warning against the imagined “dangers” of creating bad habits via competition are suggesting practice/training with a method that has been tested and proven to create actual bad habits.

Here’s a video demonstration of why:

Here’s a segment from Fads and Fallacies lecture from Dr. Mike Israetel in his Advanced Strength and Conditioning Theory course.

An article explaining the same problem:

Another article on this:

And another:

And another:

The better approach (arguably the only effective approach) is to conduct strength and conditioning as general preparation. Squats, presses, pulls, sprints, simple calisthenics, and the like yield general adaptations that aren’t specific to any particular skill or sport. Train and practice specific fundamental skills without making it “functional fitness.” Do the minimum that still allows measurable progress over time. This requires measuring (and having the means to measure) so that it can be determined if/when capabilities and skills are actually improving, by how much, and how quickly.

Those now-improved base capabilities and fundamental skills will yield improved performance in any environment once any particulars needed for that environment are addressed. This context-specific preparation comes on quickly once base capabilities and fundamental skills are well developed.

Jerking around with pseudo skill-specific exercise is great way to avoid developing base capabilities and fundamental skills.

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