soccer fitness training

Soccer fitness training: Endurance training boosts performance in the field

Soccer players need a combination of technical, tactical and physical skills in order to succeed. It is odd, therefore, that Soccer research has tended to focus on technique and tactics, with little emphasis on how to develop the endurance and speed needed to become a better player.
In one of the few studies which has explored the link between endurance capacity and Soccer performance, Hungarian researchers showed that the ranking among the four best teams in the Hungarian top division was reflected by their players' average maximal oxygen-uptake (VO2max) values(1). Another investigation found a significant correlation between VO2max and the distance covered by players during matches, the number of sprints per match and the frequency of participation in 'decisive situations'(2).

Some studies have also shown that Soccerers tend to cover less distance and work at lower intensities during the second half of games than during the first half. The logical interpretation of these findings is that fatigue is limiting the players and that if they were fitter they would perform more effectively in the latter stages of their matches. None the less, until now no investigation has clearly shown that improving aerobic capacity and overall fitness boosts performance on the Soccer field.

Fortunately, that deficiency has now been remedied, thanks to the work of Jan Helgerud and his colleagues at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim(3). Their new study involved 19 male players from two Norwegian junior lite teams - 'Nardo' and 'Strindheim' - all of whom had been playing Soccer for at least eight years. Both teams had been among the most successful in Norway over the past five years and six of the participants were members of the Norwegian national junior team. The players had an average age of 18 and mean mass of 72kg (158lb).

Aerobic interval training v extra technical training
Players within each team were randomly assigned to either a training group or a control group, so that each team had members in both groups. In addition to their regular Soccer training and play (four 90-minute practices and one game per week), members of the training group performed aerobic interval training twice a week for eight weeks. Each interval workout consisted of four discrete four-minute work intervals at 90-95% of maximal heart rate, with three-minute recoveries at 50-60% of max heart rate. Technical and tactical skills, strength and sprint training were emphasised in most practice sessions, and about one hour of each practice was devoted to mock Soccer games. While the training group members carried out their four-minute intervals, control soccer players engaged in extra technical training, including heading drills, free kicks and drills related to receiving the ball and changing direction.

At the beginning and end of the eight-week study period, all players were tested for VO2max, lactate threshold, vertical jumping height, 40m sprint ability, maximal kicking velocity and the technical ability to kick a Soccer through defined targets.

After eight weeks of twice-weekly interval training, the players in the training group had improved VO2max by almost 11%, from 58.1 to 64.3; meanwhile control group players had not upgraded VO2max at all! Similarly, lactate-threshold running speed improved by 21% and running economy by 6.7% in the training group, while controls again failed to improve at all. Clearly the players in the training group were gaining tremendous physiological benefits from just two aerobic workouts per week!

Happily, all of these physiological details translated into some markedly improved performances on the Soccer field: interval-trained athletes increased the total distance covered during games by 20% (from 8,619 to 10,335m) and also doubled the number of times they sprinted during games (a sprint being defined as an all-out run lasting at least two seconds). Furthermore, after eight weeks of interval training the number of involvements with the ball per game increased by 24%, from 47 to 59. (Involvements were defined as situations in which a player was either in physical contact with the ball or applying direct pressure to an opponent in possession of the ball.)

Interval training also boosted the athletes' overall ability to play at high intensity; after eight weeks of interval work, they were able to perform at an average of 85.6% of max heart rate during their games, compared with just 82.7% beforehand. Training group members also spent 19 minutes longer than controls in the high-intensity zone (ie above 90% of max heart rate) during an actual game.

Of course, interval training isn't a panacea, and sprint speed, squatting strength, bench-press strength, jumping height, kicking velocity and the technical shooting and passing test were unchanged by the aerobic work, as you might expect.

None the less, this very simple interval training programme (with just two workouts per week and four 4-minute intervals @ 90-95% of max heart-rate per workout) produced some dramatic improvements in overall play. Put simply, boosting VO2max, lactate threshold and running economy with interval routines gave the players an enhanced ability to cover longer running distances at higher intensities during games and to be involved with the ball more frequently and thus play a greater role in deciding the outcomes of competitions.

No Soccerer can argue that he/she does not have enough time for such additional training, which should be included in all overall programmes. Interestingly enough, the VO2max ultimately attained by the interval-trained players (64.3 is above the average VO2max reported for experienced international Soccerers, suggesting that a large number of Soccer players could benefit from aerobic training.

Athletes in many other disciplines which are not traditionally viewed as endurance sports might also benefit from the kind of interval training carried out by the Norwegian Soccer players. In particular, interval work should offer advantages for those involved in rugby and basketball.

Recent research carried out at the Victoria University of Technology in Australia revealed that basketball places huge demands on the cardiovascular system, suggesting that aerobic capacity improvements might upgrade the quality of play(4). In this study, eight players (three guards and five forwards or centres) from the Australian National Basketball League were monitored during league competition and practice games. Each competition consisted of four 12-minute quarters, with a 15-minute break at half time and two-minute breaks between quarters. Maximal aerobic capacity (VO2max) was determined for each player.

When the ball was in play, there was a change in movement category (for example, from medium-intensity shuffling to sprinting) every two seconds, and 'very intense' activity accounted for almost 30% of court time. This translated into a heavy load on the players' cardiovascular systems, with heart rate during play averaging 89% (compared with 86% of max for the interval-trained Norwegian Soccer players and 83% for the Norwegian controls). Basketball players' heart rates were above 85% of max for at least 75% of court time. Even more impressively, cardiac beating was in the 95-100% of max range for 15% of court time and in the 90-95% range for 35% of total time. During free-throw shooting, heart rates recovered to around 70-75% of max.

Interestingly, blood-lactate levels were also quite high in the basketball players, with average lactate concentration at 6.8 millimolars (mM)/litre. Somewhat surprisingly, lactate levels as high as 13 mM/litre were recorded in some of the athletes, comparable to those seen in top-level sprinters after 400m races. These findings suggest that lactate-threshold improvement might benefit basketball players' performances.
Overall, there were about 105 'high-intensity' efforts per player per basketball game, and each such exertion (whether it involved fast running or intense side-to-side shuffling) lasted for about 14 seconds. Thus, a basketball game was a bit like carrying out an interval workout with 105 14-second reps. Recoveries between repetitions were short, since intense efforts occurred every 21 seconds.

As it turned out, the Australian basketball players had average VO2max readings of 61, compared with 64.3 in the interval-trained Soccer players and 59.5 in the control group. This suggests not only that basketball itself boosts VO2max but also that improvements in VO2max might foster better play, just as it does in Soccer.

What other interval workouts besides the Norwegians' 4x4-minute scheme might be beneficial for Soccer and basketball enthusiasts? Clearly, some of the renowned French scientist Veronique Billat's 'v VO2max' sessions would be helpful, since they are very intense in nature and lead to enhancements in VO2max, lactate threshold, and running economy.

Two of Veronique's workouts should be particularly beneficial:

l The 30-30. To perform this workout, athletes should simply warm up effectively, then alternate 30 seconds of running at close to max intensity with 30 seconds of easy ambling. Initially, they should go for 10 reps, but as aerobic capacity improves they can simply keep going until fatigue kicks in;

l The 3-3. This is like 30-30, except that athletes alternate three minutes of hard running with three minutes of loping. The pace for the strenuous three-minute intervals should be determined by the best-possible speed achieved during a six-minute test. (Naturally, 're-tests' of six-minute velocity will be needed every 4-6 weeks-or-so, since running capacity should improve.) Few athletes should try to complete more than five three-minute intervals per workout.

What's the bottom line? In several key ways, Soccer and basketball count as 'endurance sports', since they place a high demand on the cardiovascular system, and since performance ability appears to hinge on physiological variables such as VO2max, lactate threshold and running economy. Thus, performing the types of interval workouts used by endurance athletes should be helpful to players of both sports.

Owen Anderson


Science and Soccer, T Reilly, A Lees, K Davids, and WJ Murphy (Eds). London: E & F N Spon, 1988, pp 95-107

2. Proceedings of the 1st International Congress on Sports Medicine Applied to Soccer, Rome, 1980, L Vecchiet (Ed) Rome: D Guanillo, 1980, pp 795-801

3. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, vol 33(11), pp 1925-1931, 2001

4. Running Research News, vol 12-3, pp 11-12, 1996

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