Football Training Drills for Improving Energy Systems During Pre-season

Football Tips and Exercises to Make You Ready for the New Season

Article at a glance:

  • The energy requirements of football are outlined;
  • The principles of pre-season training are discussed, particularly the importance of skills-based fitness training;
  • Examples are given of these principles applied in practice.

Effective pre-season football training is not just about running around the football pitch in order to shed those off-season pounds. According to Jim Petruzzi, a much more scientific approach is needed, which combines energy systems training with skill development

‘I wouldn’t say pre-seasons are a lot easier now but they’re a lot better,’ says the Villa striker. ‘All I can remember is you didn’t get to see a ball for four or five days. As soon as you reported back for training it was straight into running morning and afternoon. I think if you asked a lot of older players, they would say that’s exactly what it was like. The difference nowadays is that you see the ball right away, the first day. Yes, we still do running but it’s not so intense, pounding the roads for a couple of hours. It’s a hell of a lot different.’
Kevin Philips, Aston Villa striker, 2006

Sports science and modern technology has had a major effect on football training over the past 10 years. Many teams have become much more analytical about their players’ work rate in games, and also in training, by introducing tools such as game analysis and heart rate monitors, in order to gain an accurate understanding of the physical demands of players in games.

The structure and training methods in football throughout the season have also changed significantly and the period of pre-season training has seen some of the biggest and most significant changes, due to the importance of ensuring that players starting the season are in the best possible shape, and the need to maintain their fitness throughout the season.

Gone are the days when players would report to pre-season training and told they would not see a ball for two weeks. Small-sided games and ball-related exercises now comprise a major part of training within the modern professional game. A perfect example of this was the preparation that the Korean team (widely acknowledged to be one of the best prepared teams in the tournament) adopted in preparation for the 2002 World Cup finals.

In a review, Verheijen described how initially the Korean players could not maintain their desired pace for the full 90 minutes(1). Players made high-intensity runs less frequently and there were fewer ‘explosive actions’ as the second half progressed. After a systematic training programme, they were able to maintain a higher tempo for the entire match and the recovery between explosive efforts was dramatically improved.

The energy requirements of footballers

Football incorporates periods of high-intensity efforts interspersed with periods of lower-intensity exercise. The physiological demands of football require players to be competent in several aspects of fitness, which include aerobic and anaerobic power, muscle strength, flexibility and agility.

Overall, the game of football is essentially aerobic with intermittent anaerobic and alactic bursts of energy. Outfield players average heart rates of about 160bpm during football games and operate at 75-80% of their maximum oxygen uptake (VO2max), which is comparable to marathon running. However, football is not characterised by steady heart rates of 160bpm, which are sustained for 90 minutes of play; heart rates are continually fluctuating depending on the nature of the activity the player is performing.


the energy pathway which permits athletes to work at very high intensity for over 10-15 seconds without lactic acid production or the use of oxygen

Figure 1 below illustrates an actual heart rate plot from a professional footballer using a heart rate monitor taken during a pre-season game; notice the continuously varying heart rate but with high average peak values.

Figure 1: Actual heart rate plot of professional footballer

A graph showing heart rate in BPM against time in minutes showing peak heart rate is reached at around one and half minutes of intense activity
Date and Time 15/07/2006 14:12 Duration 3:07:30.0 Heart Rate Average 153 BPM
Sport Running Selection (red bar) 0:27:30 – 3:05:25 (2:37:55.0) Heart Rate Maximum 190 BPM

At the professional level, the contemporary game of football seems to be more demanding than suggested in much of the early literature(2), which therefore suggests a more systematic approach to training is needed(3).

A comparison of the work rates of English Premier League players over two seasons (1998-1999 and 1999-2000) with previous observations of top English League players before 1992 shows that today’s players cover approximately 1.5kms more ground in a game than their earlier counterparts(4) – a difference that is apparent for all the playing positions.

The data for the 1997-98 season shows that compared with the 1991-92 season, there is also evidence of a faster tempo to the game, including more movement of the ball and shorter breaks in play. This is probably partly due to changes in the rules, such as the omission of the back pass and also advances in sports science and player conditioning.

However, despite the high aerobic demands necessary to sustain work output for 90 minutes, games are often decided on the quality of explosive efforts, which depend on anaerobic and alactic bursts of energy; for example, to get to the ball first, leap above an opponent, spring into a goal-scoring position or to close down an opponent and deny them space to pass or shoot at goal.

The simulation of the exercise intensity corresponding to match play has enabled sport scientists to study a number of aspects of play under laboratory conditions. Observations highlight the value of exercising with the ball where possible, notably using activity drills in small groups. Small-sided games have particular advantages for young players, both in providing a physiological training stimulus and a suitable medium for skills work. While complementary training may be necessary in specific cases, integrating fitness training into a holistic process is generally advisable.

Principles of pre-season training

A successful pre-season programme is one that incorporates all of the necessary components to enable players to maximise their performance as soon as the season commences, and to be able to sustain peak physical condition throughout the season. These fitness components often vary with the individual player, the positional role in the team and the team’s style of play. Other considerations include the physical demands of the game, the current level of fitness of a particular player and what the team is striving to achieve. To meet these requirements, a well-designed pre-season training programme that addresses the specific demands of each footballer is a must. Because of this, it is worth considering physical and physiological tests at the start of your pre-season schedule to see how the players are doing, and to evaluate their preparation plans. These tests give information on the levels of endurance, speed, muscular endurance, strength, coordination, technical, and tactical elements during the preparation period.

”A successful pre-season programme is one that incorporates all of the necessary components to enable players to maximise their performance as soon as the season commences“

A pre-season preparation period covers the period from the beginning of team training until the first official match. The length of these training periods may differ from one country to another. During this training period, physical conditioning should be composed mainly of games and exercises with a ball. The frequency and number of training sessions should be increased gradually as the season approaches(5).

Paul Aigbogun, coach of the San Francisco Seals team, speaks of some of his favourite practices demonstrating how the ball can be incorporated into training for physiological benefits: ‘Some of my favourite practices are crossing and finishing, keep ball, building up to a small-sided game, starting at 1 v 1, building up to 2 v 2, 3 v 3, 4 v 4, probably up to a maximum of 8 v 8. Another one of my favourite practices is attacking team play, 11 v 6’.

Adapting these games to meet the physiological demands of football is important. Football is played by two teams of 11 players performing in an area of approximately 100m by 60m. However, during training, it is common practice to reduce both the number of players on the pitch and the size of the pitch, which has the effect of increasing the proportion of anaerobic/explosive work required. These small-sided games are one of the most common drills used by coaches in football training; whereas in the past small-sided games were mainly used to develop the technical tactical abilities of the players, they are now being employed by amateur and professional teams as an effective tool to improve physiological aspects of the game(6).

Changing approach to conditioning

Although it’s true that footballers cover large distances during a match, it’s important to note that football players are continuously alternating between anaerobic and aerobic activity, which allows recovery to take place. As a consequence, football is characterised by one dominant energy system in the body (aerobic) but with the two other energy systems (anaerobic alactic and anaerobic lactic) that enable higher-intensity outputs to play a vital role. Training all three energy systems, therefore, is important.


Anaerobic lactic
Short duration (1-2 minutes) high-intensity energy pathway involving the breakdown of glycogen (glycolysis) in the absence of oxygen, with the formation of ATP plus lactic acid

Traditionally, footballers have used interval training to develop aerobic fitness. However, the use of small-sided games has recently been recommended as an ideal training method for improving fitness and competitive performance in football, because match-specific small-sided games can effectively improve the fitness of the cardiovascular system while mimicking match-specific skill requirements(7,8). Other advantages include increased player motivation, training the capacity to perform skilled movements under pressure and a reduced rate of training injuries.

Scientific research has established that five-a-side football drills on a pitch measuring 50m x 40m can produce heart rate responses within the intensity range previously shown to be effective for improving aerobic fitness and football performance (performing running interval training at 90 to 95% of maximal heart rate)(9).

Examples of principles in practice

Pre-season anaerobic training – One approach is to work on general anaerobic conditioning using quality interval training, which can be performed by performing football-related activities. In practice, that means alternating maximum speed sprints with very light jogging or walking. Workouts should last about 20-30 minutes and consist of 7-10 second sprints and 30-50 seconds of low-intensity jogging or walking, giving an aerobic/anaerobic training ratio of 5:1. For example, you could play 1 v 1, where one player is defending a goal on the edge of the 18-yard line. The other player sprints at full pace from the other 18-yard line, receives the ball on the halfway line and sprints towards the goal aiming to get a shot on target. He then jogs backs and repeats the same drill.

Summary of energy Systems in football:

  1. Anaerobic alactic, high intensity. Duration up to 15 seconds; used in explosive efforts and short sprints, kicking, tackling etc;
  2. Anaerobic lactic, moderate-high intensity. Duration of 15-120 seconds; used in longer sprints and sustained high-intensity efforts (heart rate around 90% of maximum);
  3. Aerobic moderate to low intensity 120 seconds plus used while jogging, walking, recovery between harder efforts etc.
Aerobic activities Anaerobic activities
Walking backwards Jumping
Running at speeds less than ¾ maximum pace
Most tackling and contact situations
Accelerating and changing direction quickly
Running at speeds greater than ¾ maximum pace

An example of this was a training drill that Bansgo conducted with Zambrotta while he was assistant coach at Juventus. The drill was for Zambrotta to play the ball from the edge of his own box to a midfielder, sprint and then receive the ball inside the opposite half and run with the ball, cutting back inside and striking it with his left leg. The aerobic/anaerobic training ratio was 5:1 – ie very specific to football.

Pre-season speed training – Here’s an example of a speed drill that combines skill and fitness training. Divide the players into two equal groups, placing them both in a single line formation, and have the two players at the front of the two groups facing each other at a distance of about 20 metres apart. Player A (the player at the front of the line) from group one passes the ball to the other player A (the player at the front of the line in group two) and sprints to the other side to the back of group two. Player A from group two receives the ball, controls and passes the ball then sprints to the back of group one. Each player repeats this with the emphasis being on speed. After passing the ball, it should take about 3 seconds for the player to sprint 20 metres, with a short rest before performing the exercise again.

Pre-season aerobic training – Examples include drills lasting 2-3 minutes with a work/rest ratio of 1:1 working at low intensity or continuous low-intensity work over a period of 20 minutes. Alternatively you could play a small-sided game such as 4 v 4, though if you wanted to work solely on the aerobic system, these games would need to be played at low intensity to keep aerobic activity to a minimum.

Constructing a football-specific pre-season training session

The following is a guide you can use to help you plan your own pre-season training sessions. As well as simple running drills, you can also incorporate the relevant work/rest/intensity combinations into football-specific drills.


Exercise (secs) Rest Intensity Repetitions
2-10 5 times exercise duration Maximal 2-10

Building speed/endurance

Exercise (secs) Rest Intensity Repetitions
20-40 5 times exercise duration Almost maximal 2-10

Maintaining speed/endurance

Exercise (secs) Rest Intensity Repetitions
30-90 30-90 seconds Almost maximal 2-10

Aerobic high intensity

Exercise (mins) Rest Intensity Repetitions
2-5 Same as exercise duration 90%+ of heart rate maximum 4-6

Aerobic low intensity

Exercise (mins) Rest Intensity Repetitions
8-10 1-2 minutes 70-80% of heart rate maximum 2-4

As a rule of thumb, training should involve regular use of the ball wherever possible as this will not only help develop the specific muscles involved in match play, but also improve technical and tactical skills and help keep players interested. This is where small-sided games offer an advantage and many coaches such as Marcello Lippi, formerly at Juventus, and winner of the 2006 World Cup with Italy, are big believers in the positive effects of small-sided games.


Small-sided games and football-related activities, as highlighted, have a number of benefits. Footballers love nothing more than to play football, and while the physiological aspect of football is one of the most important factors in players performing at their best, incorporating functional activity, small-sided games, and football-specific activity is bound to make sessions more enjoyable for the players while improving their physical fitness to meet the demands of the game.

Jim Petruzzi is a performance coach, specialising in sports science and sports psychology, who works with several professional football clubs and international teams


  1. Verheijen Conditioning for Soccer 2003; 1/275-276
  2. Insight – The FA Coaches Association Journal 2004; 2(7):56-57
  3. Journal of Human Movement Studies 1976; 2:87-97
  4. J Sports Sci Med 2001; 6:63-70
  5. Acta Physiol Scand Suppl 1994; 619:1-155
  6. Br J Sports Med 2002; 36(3):218-221
  7. Balsom, PD. Precision Football. Kempele, Finland. Polar Electro Oy 1999
  8. Sports Coach 2002; 24(4):18-20
  9. Journal of Sports Sciences 2000; 18:885-892


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