Pre season training for soccer and rugby

Conference Report: How football and rugby teams should train before the season begins.

The Third World Congress of Science and Football took place in Cardiff In April 1995. The congress included not only keynote lectures from authorities throughout the world but also short communications and poster presentations on scientific aspects of sport relating to all codes of football. But soccer wasn't the only sport on the menu--rugby, Aussie Rules, Grid Iron, Gaelic and the fast-growing sport of touch rugby for women Down Under were all discussed as well.

As far as soccer was concerned, the range of debate was wide, including such areas as psychological and physical preparation of players, coaching, biomechanics, sports medicine, match analysis and sociological perspectives. It was very much a multi-disciplinary conference, so it's a pity there was so little representation from British soccer clubs, who might have learned something. This could be one reason why British football is starting to lag behind the rest of the world. Other nations appear far more ready to take on new ideas for the preparation of their players.

At this time of year, most clubs are concerned with the conditioning of players in the pre-season build-up. In this period players can concentrate on the development of skills and fitness without the stress of impending competition week in and week out. A couple of papers at the congress addressed the subject of pre- season conditioning, as there is little published work on what is the best blend of training to get to the season in good shape, as well as what fitness improvements can realistically be expected in this training period.
Probing the Welsh national rugby squad
A study from the Cardiff Institute of Higher Education aimed to examine these fitness changes through the pre-season period in elite rugby players. The players studied were from the Welsh national squad, consisting of 18 backs and 21 forwards. A battery of fitness tests was administered in both June and September of the same year to examine the change in fitness profiles. The results from the first round of tests were used to assist prescription of the players' training schedules by looking at their strengths and weaknesses.

It was surprising to see that in this conditioning period there was only a small improvement in the aerobic endurance of the backs, and little change in that of the forward players. The fitness levels were typical of those expected in good-standard rugby players. There was, however, improvement in flexibility and the strength performance of the players, while there was a decrease in explosive leg power, a vital aspect of performance in the game. It would appear from the data presented that forwards may need to put more effort into improving aerobic endurance than they currently do. Although rugby is characterised by short, intense bursts of activity, there is little doubt that better aerobic endurance would help the players to maintain a higher work output throughout the duration of a match. It is also important to improve explosive power during this conditioning period.
...and an English first-division soccer team
A similar project, carried out by Staffordshire University, examined the effect of a specific pre-season conditioning programme on the fitness levels of 15 senior members of an English first-division soccer squad. The programme used was a mixed regime of cross-country running, fartlek running (mixed pace work), aerobic interval running and hill running for aerobic benefit, which comprised 80 per cent of the volume; the remaining 20 per cent involved high-intensity shuttle running and game-specific conditioning, which is a little more intense. Throughout the pre-season period, a total of 21 days of actual training was performed, consisting of both morning and afternoon sessions lasting about one-and-a-half to two hours.

Once again, a battery of fitness tests was used to assess the players both before and after the conditioning period. Over this period there was a significant improvement in aerobic endurance, as shown by a large increase in performing a progressive shuttle run to exhaustion. This improvement in endurance performance, a function of the hard aerobic training undertaken, was also reflected by a significant decrease in body fat percentage. Although performance of an agility run test also improved during the conditioning period, there was no improvement in the other fitness parameters measured, such as anaerobic endurance, flexibility, strength and power. Once again, these are important parts of match fitness which appear to have been relatively neglected in the training programme and may need attention in future.
Losing leg strength
Both these papers highlight the danger of inhibited leg power during conditioning training, supporting the belief that this parameter can be impaired when performing endurance work. Thus leg strength needs attention, as was pointed out by the eminent physiologist Jans Pieter Clarys when he noted that improving leg strength often improves overall performance. Not only is this particularly useful useful after injury, to help restore the correct balance between opposite muscle groups (such as quadriceps and hamstrings) but it is also a necessity for other aspects of performance, such as kicking or injury prevention (particularly when the muscles of posture are given attention).

One difficulty for the coach is in deciding which type of strength training to perform within the overall programme. Thus a comparison between three types of regime was used to help identify the more suitable method. The options were: using a constant resistance, where the load remains the same but the speed of movement can vary as does the muscle length (such as a squat exercise); variable resistance, which was similar, except the load was varied; and isokinetic work. The last needs specialised equipment, where the speed of movement is maintained constant throughout the whole range of movement, which means that the load also varies.

Measurement of the performance of I Repetition Max and isokinetic performance, both before and after the training programme, revealed that the variable resistance condition was most effective in the short term. For rehabilitation, however, the isokinetic condition proved to be most effective as a means of reconditioning the players in a safe and efficient manner.
Taking in carbo and fluids
Once the season gets underway, the emphasis of the coach tends to shift from long-term conditioning of the players to the maintenance of performance during matches. Clearly, fitness has an enormous impact here, but the importance of nutrition should not be forgotten.

A study from Chichester Institute of Higher Education examined the effects of administering carbohydrate before and during the game as a supplement. Because of the high intensity of soccer for a duration of 90 minutes, it is possible that maintaining carbohydrate levels throughout a match may help performance in the later stages of the game.

A simulated soccer match on a treadmill was set up, whereby subjects had to perform 30 six-second maximal sprints within a three-minute cycle of walking, jogging and running in an attempt to replicate the demands of the game. The players performed this test twice, once with a carbohydrate drink before the 'game' and at half time, and once with a placebo drink. The results showed that although the blood glucose level was higher after the carbohydrate drink, there was no significant difference in the performance variables such as maximal speeds in the match, or average sprint speed throughout the match.

A similar study was also completed at the same centre, using the simulated match idea, this time examining the ingestion of fluid--in this case, water-- throughout the match. In the previous study, the same amount of fluid was consumed in both conditions; it was just the carbohydrate concentration that varied. Here, the subjects performed two trials again, one with 8ml of water per kilogram of body mass (ml/kg/min) before the test and at half time, as well as smaller doses (2ml/kg/min) every 15 minutes throughout the simulated match. The second trial had no water ingestion at all in the test period.
Repeated drinking works best
The results showed that body mass was maintained throughout the match in the drink condition but dropped by 2.3 per cent in the dry condition. In runners, such a drop in body mass, through fluid loss, has been shown to severely impair performance in endurance events. Similar drops in performance were also seen in these soccer players. Although the maximum speed of the sprints did not vary, the overall distance covered by the sprints was greater in the second half of the water trial. This shows that the overall sprinting capacity is maintained by repeated drinking in a simulated match.

Players who think they need to worry about drinking only during the warmer summer months should think again. Data collected from an English Premier League Team by Leeds Metropolitan University also examined the effects of dehydration on performance, but this time in actual matches. By carefully measuring the amount of fluid consumed by players and body mass before and after the matches, it was possible to calculate the amount of sweat loss during the matches. The average amount of weight loss during matches was 1.26kg which corresponds to a 1.54 per cent drop in body mass. However, when one considers the amount of fluid consumed in the same period, the actual loss is above 2 per cent. Given that these matches occurred during the winter, the importance of fluid replacement before and during matches is highlighted. It is particularly essential in the first few games of the season, when the temperature and sweat loss are likely to be higher.

(Abstracts of these and many other studies will soon be published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, while full papers of the conference will be published in a book, Science and Football III (E. & F.N. Spon.)
Joe Dunbar

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