Football training: how to maintain fitness all year round

Football fitness- conditioning techniques to ensure you stay in shape the whole season

By: Simon Thadani

Football is one of the most unique and demanding sports. At the top level, players are expected to play 50 or more matches in a season that lasts nine months, and the physical toll is increased by all the training between matches, as well as the travelling up and down the country and abroad. Players are mentally and physically fully taxed. Football is rightly described as ‘a marathon, not a sprint’.

Once pre-season has been completed and professional teams are into league and cup games, conditioning does not take priority for the regular starting 11 players. Rather, games, football training (ie, with the ball) and recovery/rest days become the priority. Conditioning comes next, but I am always looking to continue a player’s individual personal development – to keep them as match-sharp as possible.

Training and playing is conditioning. This means that football training and games maintain aerobic and anaerobic fitness, for example. And if you plan with the football coaches, you can cover other conditioning aspects, such as strength, speed and power, within specific football sessions. It really depends on where you are in the playing cycle, what your conditioning priorities are and how you want to achieve them.

The great Muhammad Ali neatly neatly summed up the importance of getting training right when he said: ‘The fight is won and lost far away from witnesses, it’s won behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the roads, long before I dance under those lights.’          

So how do you – as a football conditioning coach – ensure that your players are able to perform at maximum in their ‘fight arena’? 

Amateur players

A great deal depends on how high you are up the non-league ladder and why you play football. The higher you are, the more seriously you should take your conditioning. If you train (with the team) twice a week then you should certainly fit in conditioning work within these sessions. However, you should also do more conditioning within your own time. As a conditioning coach, you need to give players guidelines and programmes to follow and do, and trust (but monitor) that they get on with them. Consequently you must encourage players to keep you informed of what they have done so you can start to build up a picture of their condition. Following the PRIDE acronym will help – this is used in professional football, but it is just as important in the amateur game. It stands for:

Personal
Responsibility
In
Developing
Excellence 

Guidelines for progressing footballers’ conditioning across the season

Early in-season

Match analysis systems quite clearly indicate that players continue to improve their match fitness several games into the season. At this time, subject to fixtures, you are looking to overload the players three times a week. Note that this also includes matches and can be done either by football training or specific conditioning. Individual strength programmes are continuing during this period. It is also important to continue to develop speed and power.

Examples of drills we might use:

1) High-intensity aerobic/anaerobic without ball

This drill will be used if we are playing Saturday-to-Saturday fixtures and football training is not of a high intensity. Mark out a 300m oval track and place cones in a straight line at intervals of 4m, 8m, 12m, 16m and 20m within it (depending on the number of players you are working with, more than one lane can be marked out).

a)    Players run around the 300m track in 50 seconds – this time is based on professional players. They rest for one minute and go again. Three further runs are completed.
b)    They then do a simple ‘doggy drill’ (normal running action, there and back, there and back, etc) to the 4m cone and back, then to the 8m cone and back. This pattern is repeated to the remaining 12m, 16m and 20m cones. The drill is completed at 100% effort. Professional players will complete the course in less than 27 seconds. The players rest for one and a half minutes and then go again. This constitutes one set – each contains two efforts. Aim for two to four sets. This is a very tough session.

2) High-intensity aerobic/anaerobic workout with ball

This drill uses a pitch, approximately 42m by 35m, with two goals and two goalkeepers and two teams of five outfield players. You’ll also need about 20 balls – these are spread out around the outside of the pitch. Players basically play a high intensity five-a-side for four minutes and then take an active rest (this can involve walking and light jogging) of 90 seconds. The emphasis is on continuous play (hence the spare balls). Repeat four to six times. 

Around Christmas time

In the professional game, Christmas and the New Year is a very hectic period, so the four ‘Rs’ take priority – Rest, Recovery, Rehydration and Refuelling. However, lower down the amateur leagues this time could be ideal to have a mini-break and then do some serious training, such as speed-endurance or strength and power work.

Examples of drills we might use:

1) Speed endurance without ball

Jog 5 metres and then sprint 30 metres
Jog 5 metres and then sprint 35 metres
Jog 5 metres and then sprint 40 metres
Jog 5 metres and then sprint 45 metres
Recovery – walk for 2 minutes between sets

Do: 4-6 sets

2)     Speed endurance with ball

Cones-       f       d       b       o       a       c       e
Players -                      *1 *2

Use six cones - a b c d e f and o (as shown in diagram). The players start at cone ‘o’. The players are marked as *1 and *2. Distance between each cone is 5 yards.

Each player has a ball and they face in opposite directions. At the command ‘go’, player 1 sprint-dribbles to cone ‘b’ and leaves the ball there. He then turns and sprints to collect his partner’s ball at ‘a’. At the same time, player 2 has sprint-dribbled to ‘a’, left the ball there, turned and sprinted to ‘b’, where he collects the ball left by player 1.

On arriving at their respective cones (b and a), the players each collect their partner’s ball (as noted), turn and sprint with the ball to cones ‘d’ and ‘c.’ respectively. They leave the balls at these cones, then turn and sprint to collect their partner’s ball, then turn and sprint-dribble with the ball to cones ‘f’ and ‘e’ respectively, where they leave the balls, turn and sprint to pick up their partner’s ball, and turn and sprint back with the ball to ‘o.’ Professional players take less than 20 seconds to complete this drill.

Do: 10-12 times with 40 seconds’ active recovery. 

Maintenance period

The maintenance period usually starts around February time. Prozone (this is a very precise method of measuring player movements and intensity on pitch) has clearly shown me that it’s rare that professional players beat their on-field performance bests – for example, for a wide midfield player, 13km (distance covered) 2000 metres (high intensity) and 600metres (sprint work) in a match. They are as fit, strong and quick as you will get them at this time of the season and they will have played some 30-plus games. If you can get them to continually match their personal bests, week in, week out, then you have done well. The next three to four months of the season will be a real challenge – players’ physical condition must be maintained, without dips in performance.

Examples of drills we might use:

Football maintains many of the components of conditioning. But, subject to what the players do in football training, you may need to top up certain aspects, such as speed or endurance. This is the time of year when I like to move outside and continue to develop the strength that has been developed inside in the gym and sports hall, via the use of fresh new drills and workouts.

Over-speed drill – slingshot, using bungees, for speed

This drill improves stride rate, stride frequency, arm swing acceleration and reflexes. Two players work together, one resisting and holding the bungee tension and the other working. You need one harness and two bungees, which are attached together.

Players stand 25m apart. Player 1 wears the harness and player 2 provides the resistance.
On the shout ‘go’, player 2 sprints 5m and stops. At the same time, player 1(sprinting approx 30m) sprints past player 2 and stops slowly.

The drill is repeated three or four times, after which the players sprint without resistance. 

End-of-season

This is a highly dangerous period, physically and mentally – one when players can and do get injured. Forty-five games might have been played, but those last five or more could be the most important, sorting out relegation or promotion. Attitude, motivation, over-training, under-training and fatigue become big issues; so it is important to keep training fresh to keep the players fresh. I give them variety by introducing cross-training and striving to keep them mentally positive. ‘Short and sharp’ is very much my training mantra at this time. Stretching is also emphasised.

Examples of training we might use instead of football training:

1.    Simple pool sessions – moderate intensity level
2.    Spinning bike sessions – moderate intensity level
3.    Volleyball competition – light intensity level
4.    Football head tennis competition – light intensity level
5.    Cycling around a park or lake – light/moderate level. 

Golden tips for conditioning during the season

  • Prioritise conditioning; you can’t do everything you know that players need. The starting 11 will have a different schedule from the rest of the squad. With the latter you must ensure that their fitness levels are high enough so that, if they are called upon, they can slot into the first team without their fitness being an issue.
  • Amateur players, subject to what level they play at and why they play, should take responsibility for doing extra conditioning work in their own time.
  • If your players are playing two games a week, eg, Saturdays and Tuesdays, then conditioning takes a back seat and the four ‘Rs’ take priority. Do not underestimate the benefit of sleep and of not disturbing the sleep patterns as part of recovery.
  • Nutrition is very important – get specialised help. Food and fluid intake does affect performances. It is interesting to note that younger professional players do not seem to adhere to this, while older players seem to take it on board. Have the latter learned from their mistakes?
  • When working on a weekly cycle (Saturday to Saturday matches) follow the tapering principles, ie, do conditioning drills in the early part of the week and technical, higher-quality work closer to matches.
  • Prioritise the conditioning components to the individual and the team.
  • Although every player is genetically different, our basic rule for improving cardiovascular fitness, subject to the time of the season, is to train three times a week, ideally achieving approximately 16 to 20 minutes in the upper training zone (85% to 95% of heart rate maximum). Note: there will always be exceptions to this rule.
  • Try to have a ‘theme’ for every warm-up, which works on a conditioning component as well as warms the player up. Themes could be speed with relay races, or acceleration, or technique work, power with plyometrics or resistance sprint work, such as hill work or mobility with dynamic stretching, or strength work with press ups, core work and lunges, etc.
  • A little and often specific conditioning work is better than none, so plan ahead.
  • Do the simple things well. Keep the sessions simple and specific, especially if time is an issue and overtraining is to be avoided.
  • Mix it up – keep conditioning fresh. There will by necessity be certain conditioning aspects you must continually repeat, but when the opportunity arises, employ variety. Examples include using different coaches to do sessions, sprint relays with a baton or a rugby or a tennis ball, or in different locations, and so on.
  • Do drills accurately and with specificity in mind. For example, in a match, players walk, jog, run and sprint, so your aerobic and anaerobic workouts without a ball should reflect this. As a specific example, sprints in a game last between two and five seconds, therefore drills should reflect this
  • Plan ahead as much as possible. Speak to the football coaches and work with them and find slots where football training intensity is low or moderate and then plan your conditioning. Failing to plan is planning to fail.
  • Educate the players why they are doing specific drills and suchlike. Get them to ‘buy into’ what they are doing by telling them that they will become better players.
  • Heart-rate monitors are a good way to monitor players’ training – although they are not infallible, they will allow a good degree of control.
  • Player mentality is important. Players will always ‘moan’ when they have to do a hard specific conditioning drill – it’s their nature! Their attitude on the day will always have an effect on the drill, so be positive and reinforce that it will make them better players.

Simon’s star tip

Hard work

There is no substitute for hard physical work, at the right time and place. All the sports science, nutritional information and gadgets will never replace the passion, desire and the will to win that hard physical work can give you.

 
Simon Thadani is the football conditioning coach for Ipswich Town FC

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