Football Training: combining agility training and fitness workouts to improve performance

Football conditioning to maintain and improve performance

Pre match warm-up drills and exercises are a commonplace sight in football but are these drills making the footballers better at what they do, or are coaches merely replicating past practice or advocating what they did as a player years ago? More generally, do the technical training and exercise routines reduce the risk of injury and enhance the players’ performance on the field, and can they be made better? James Marshall investigates

At a glance

Football players have to perform repeated sprints throughout the match. Fitter players will be able to perform these sprints for longer. A less fit player may be faster, but won’t be able to produce that speed when it counts – for example during the last 10 minutes of each half or in injury time.

Research on professional women football players in the USA compared their performance in matches to that of good players (but not professional or internationals) in the Danish and Swedish leagues and found that the work rate was much higher in the professional players, who covered 33% more distance in their hardest five minutes of a match than the ‘good’ players (1).

However, it was interesting to see that following this burst, the next five minutes resulted in a 17% below average work rate, showing that it is impossible to maintain the absolute top work rates. The professionals also ran at top speeds for 28% longer over the match than the ‘good’ players, covering 1.68km compared to 1.33km.  The overall distance covered was between 9-11km with over 1,300 changes in activity in the match – an average of one change every 4 seconds!
There was also a difference in activity levels between the positions for both groups, with defenders performing fewer sprints than midfielders and attackers and also fewer intervals of high intensity running overall. Fatigue had an effect on both groups, with the professionals running 25-27% less at high intensity in the last 15 minutes of the game compared to the previous five 15-minute intervals. The ‘good’ players performed less work in the last 15 minutes of both halves compared to the previous 30 minutes, highlighting the difference between activity levels of merely good amateur players and professionals.

Small-sided games

Small-sided games are often used in training as an efficient way of working on fitness and simultaneously. These consist of games of two versus two, three versus three and so on in a half or quarter-sized pitch that requires all players to work almost continuously throughout the duration of the session. The coach can adjust the game to make it more accurately replicate the demands of matches themselves. But, do they actually allow for maximal bursts of activity in a limited space?
A study compared the training activity profiles of elite women football players and also their domestic and international matches (2). While the work-to-rest ratios were very similar, the composition of the activities was different. Matches usually had a period of up to four seconds of high intensity activity (defined as sprinting, striding or high intensity running) followed by 44-64 seconds of low intensity activity (defined as standing, walking or jogging). This equated to work:rest ratios of 1:13 for attackers, 1:10 for midfielders, and 1:15 for defenders.
In international matches, however, there were more episodes of repeated sprints than in domestic competition and training. The average player had performed 4.8 repeated sprints in international games, with each sprint averaging 2.1 seconds and with 5.8 seconds of active recovery between the sprints. This type of repeated sprint activity wasn’t found in the small-sided games in training, so clearly they were not helping to prepare the players as well for international matches as for domestic matches.

Testing

Having assessed the levels of activity required in football, how do we know if players are fit enough to play at the highest level? Any test has to be able to measure a fitness parameter that is used in football, and also to distinguish between good and very good players. These fitness tests may be useful to see if the player is fit enough but lacks skill, or is skilful in training but lacks the ability to produce that consistently throughout the game.
Some researchers are now trying to integrate skill work into the fitness tests to try and separate the different levels of ability more accurately. The advantage of this is that it becomes more specific to football; the disadvantage is that when you are testing more than one variable at once, it is harder to discern which is the weakest point that needs to be trained – skill or fitness.

One group of Serbian researchers used a zigzag run test without a ball and then one when dribbling a ball (3). The course was series of four 5-metre sections set out at 100-degree angles (see figure 1 below). The smaller the gap between the two times indicated a higher level of skill and was known as the ‘skill index’. This allows the testers to identify the quick players with the ball, and then see whether less quick players need to work on speed, or skill level.

Figure 1

Training speed or agility

It’s quite common to see football coaches do generic speed or agility work using various pieces of equipment on the ground as aids to their training. However, whether this works or not is debatable; it looks good, it’s easy to do, but is it transferable to the sport of football itself?

The problem is that most agility tests identify how quick a player moves around obstacles or between two or three different cones. They don’t identify how a player reacts to a stimulus that actually occurs in the game. A good tennis player therefore may do well on a football agility test, but that doesn’t mean he can play football!

To illustrate this, researchers looked at speed and agility for six random intermittent dynamic type sports: football, field hockey, rugby, basketball, tennis and netball (4). They tested players before and after three training protocols using the T-Test, a 15-metre sprint, a countermovement jump and a dynamic balance test.

The training protocols used were based on either programmed agility movements, random agility movements in the form of small-sided games or a control group with no conditioning. The programmed group was further split into two subgroups, with one subgroup using specialised equipment while the other didn’t (see box 1). The trials ran over six weeks with training being split into two separate 60-minute sessions a week, including a 15-minute warm up.
The subjects involved in this study were untrained, so the results may not be transferable to trained athletes. Both training groups improved their performance over the six weeks, with the programmed group improving more than the random group. There was no difference within the programmed group between subjects who used equipment and those who didn’t.

Box 1

As well as the subjects being untrained (where any type of training will normally lead to an improvement) another limitation of this study was that the tests themselves were programmed tests  – ie the subjects knew exactly where to go and in what order, so programmed conditioning may well be more suitable for doing better at these tests. Moreover, the group who played the games were also improving their ball skills and game awareness concurrently, and this was not measured.

One study that did look at trained professional football players used either strength or strength and plyometric training plan to improve sprint and jump performance over seven weeks(5). One group of players performed the strength-only sessions, which consisted of half squats performed at 4-6RM (the maximum amount of weight that could be lifted safely either four, five or six times) for three to five sets. The other group completed the same strength sessions but also performed various plyometric exercises such as leg bounds and hurdle jumps.

Both groups improved their leg strength and their sprint and jump performances. The rationale behind the study was that strength training has been shown to improve high force, but not necessarily high velocity. The plyometrics were designed as part of a power programme to help improve force production at speed, which translates into linear sprint speed and vertical jump ability. The authors concluded that players who were also doing football specific training sessions gained no further benefits by performing additional plyometric work – possibly because the football training sessions were already specific enough to aid in increasing the rate of force development.

Pre-season conditioning

Most studies done on football players conditioning are short in nature, normally six to eight weeks, because there’s only limited time available to implement new tests and protocols out of season. However, the longer-term effects of training plans and protocols will differ as players continue to adapt. Similarly, if some maintenance work is not done each week, the effects of a pre-season training programme may not last beyond Christmas.

Footballers often talk about being ‘match fit’ but that maybe should read ‘match fat’ as evidence shows that just training and playing football may result in greater body fat levels at the end of the season than at the beginning (6)! The same trend has also been demonstrated in rugby league players who recorded increased fat and reduced aerobic and muscular power at the end of the season compared to the beginning (7).

A study carried out at Texas A&M University looked at a female varsity football team and measures of VO2max, body mass and body fat % through a one-year cycle (8). Despite their season only being 15 weeks long, the players’ average VO2max decreased from just over 49mls/kg/min to 44.9mls/kg/min while body fat increased from 15.7% to 18.8 %!
The difference in the training schedule from pre-season to in-season to off-season can be seen in table 1. The main difference was the elimination of the high-intensity speed sessions during the season and also the reduction of weightlifting volume by 35%, with no increase in load. The emphasis during the season was on maintaining the cardiovascular workouts (presumably to maintain VO2max and keep body fat in check) but these did not have the desired effect.

Table 1

Maybe the coaches believed that matches and cardiovascular training sessions would be enough to maintain fitness. However, as we saw in the study of small-sided games (2), while matches and cardiovascular training can have many benefits, the necessary high-intensity work to maintain peak performance may be missing. By dropping the volume of weight lifting and eliminating the high-intensity speed workouts, the players effectively became detrained as the season went on.

Although there are no comparable studies in elite footballers, extrapolating these results to a typical European season (which lasts over twice as long) suggests that in-season detraining may be even more of a problem. Indeed, this effect has been observed in a longer season in junior reserve team players (10 to 14 year olds) who gained fat and were slower at the end of the season than the start (8). Caution is needed when looking at data in this age group as maturation levels play a big part in changing physiology, but the decline in performance can be linked to lack of an in-season training plan.

Take home message

So how do you plan your training programme? Time is a factor and part-time clubs obviously have less. I would recommend the warm-up as the ideal place to work on the technical aspects of agility, rather than the standard jog around the pitch. Also, the agility drills must replicate the movement patterns of football, and not just be comprised of equipment obstacle courses that distract from the purpose of training. Here are some tips:

  • A combination of programmed and unprogrammed agility sessions, leading into small-sided games will give players a sound aerobic base and incorporate skill work;
  • These should be combined with higher intensity quality work for speed and also anaerobic power;
  • Weight training should be conducted in the off-season with squats being a key lift, to develop lower body power and speed;

In-season work should also incorporate shorter sessions of weight training and sprints, but with high levels of intensity.
Coaches and researchers often have a particular approach, which they firmly believe in and will often go to great lengths to prove or justify these beliefs. However, it seems that all aspects of training can work to some extent, but also have their flaws, and that detraining is a common factor during the season. It is therefore important to vary the types of training to prevent staleness and also to maintain intensity and quality work throughout the season. This will ensure that the players are as fit at the end of the season as they were at the beginning.

 

References
1. JSCR, 22 (2), 341-349 (2008)
2. JSCR, 22 (2) 543-552 (2008)
3. JSCR 22 (4), 1046-1050 (2008)
4. JSCR, 21 (4), 1093-1100 (2007)
5. JSCR 22 (3), 773-780 (2008)
6. JSCR, 21 (1), 48-51 (2007)
7. JSCR, 22(4), 1308-1314 (2008)
8. JSCR 19 (2), 400-408 (2005)

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