Football Physical Demands and Training


Football: Physical demands and Training

Football, Fitness, Conditioning, Speed, Agility, Strength

With the World Cup upon us we will consider the physical demands of playing football, how they relate to the players seen at the world cup, and how to develop them.

Football the game

The World Cup 2018 starts in a matter of weeks. Whilst we all love to talk tactics and formations; how many consider the physical demands of the game? Without doubt, there will be some exceptionally skilful players going to the world cup, with the likes of Christano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to name two. But all skill being equal physical condition will play a massive part.

Physical demands of the game

There are ample statistics available on individual players running performances in professional football games. All teams have Analysts who dissect the data and present it to the players and coaches on individual performances and opposition. Sky Sports, as an example has masses of data available on how far players have run, what areas etc. We will simplify this to understand what makes up a game of football.

Football has been described ‘as a high-intensity, intermittent contact team sport’5. Analysis has found players cover between 9-14km per match 1, which means a good level of aerobic endurance is needed. However, football is intermittent in nature with periods of high-intensity activity. Sprints are mainly (90%) under 30m/average 6 seconds, but can vary from 1.5m to the length of the pitch. A Sprint occurs on average every 90 seconds, but link that with a change of direction every 2-4seconds, player’s anaerobic capacity and power will be vitally important.

The above solely covers moving around the pitch. On top of those is kicking, jumping, tackling which require ample power and strength to perform then recover to return into game play. Those are ‘quick’ actions, whereas ball control and holding off/jockeying with players requires strength to stand ground and control yours, and to a certain extent your opponent’s bodies.

Top of the league

There is a marked difference in physical

ability between top and bottom of the

league. Teams higher in the league

have better endurance, agility and

ability to repeatedly sprint. Players in

better teams also sprint faster and are

stronger and more powerful. One

comparison in the Norwegian league

found the top league was over 10%

better across nearly all factors 6. A

last factor is injury, teams with players

missing through injury struggle more

through the season. This links to the

physiological abilities, the physically

better players the more resilient to

injuries they are.

Match Conditioning

A Football match consists of 2 x 45min halves. Players can cover up to 14km during a match, therefore endurance is required. This distance is covered at a variety speeds, from walking to flat out sprinting. Going for a 45min run is unsuitable, as it promotes less powerful fibres and will reduce sprint speed. However, research has found performing aerobic interval training (4 x 4min at 90-95% max HR with 3min jog between each at 70% HR twice per week) increases aerobic capacity, distance covered and sprints 2. Having superior aerobic capacity also relates to more involvement and starts.

Whilst the 4 x 4min can be performed running or integrated in the high-intensity interval training (HIIT) format, ultimately those involved in sports want to play. Luckily this 4x4min format can be integrated into small sided games. 5 v 5 games have been found to produce similar physiological effects to HIIT training 4. Being small sided means each player has more touches of the ball, therefore may assist in skill development.

As explained early football requires the ability to repeatedly sprint and those more able perform better. The simplest form is a straight-line sprint which will give a great base. However, each position has different requirements for distance and direction. In addition, adding a skill component makes it more specific and interesting. Therefore, you may have a goal keeper shuttling forward, back and side 5m, with dives and jumps included. Conversely a winger may perform 30-50m straight line sprints or with a cut into the pitch to receive a ball and cross it in. The more important part to get the physiological response is the work to rest ratio. Working on a ratio 1:6 or even 1:4 for the fitter/able will give a great response. The work wants to be around 6seconds with a rest period of 24-36seconds 3. An important point to remember: When a drill is for fitness do not let a skill component interfere, you may have to drop the skill to keep the work rate up, and vis-versa.

Speed, Power and Strength

Players need to be quick and agile to beat and chase opponents. The simplest way to get faster is run fast. Performing some out and out sprints once a week (if you play once per week) will make you faster. Likewise, agility drills practiced will improve speed. This can be made more football specific by having the sprints with rolling starts and a variety of stimulus in each. For example, start a agilty drill with players running around a course of cones. Then add a player directing them to a cone as they are running. To make it more difficult the player directs them by passing a ball to the space. These should be speed and agility drills, not fitness drills. Give ample rest time between each sprint/drill for full recovery and maximal effort in each.

On top of speed players must jump, tackle and kick, which all require strength and power. Jump height, sprint performance, and endurance are all correlated with strength in professional football players. Football player’s strength program should not look like a body builders program. Once a base level of strength has been developed their program should be based on developing strength in compound movements, and power through explosive and plyometric movements. Assistance exercises will be based on ‘injury prevention’, exercises that the player need. Lower body should be the emphasis; however, upper body cannot be forgotten to provide whole body strength to stand up on the ball and resist opposition.

The Professional Football Athlete

Physical ability will play an important part for all the teams at the World Cup. Whilst undoubtedly the eventual winner will be the most skilful team, they will also be significantly fitter than teams that did not make the final competition in Russia. Having a well-rounded program to assist football training is vital and can be difference between trophies and relegation at the end of the season.

This blog is a review of Turner and Stewart’s excellent article in the Strength and Conditioning Journal.

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1.Andrzejewksi, M., Chumura, J., Pluta, B., Strzelczyk, R., and Kasprzak, A. 2013. Analysis of sprinting activities of professional soccer players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27 (8), pp.2134-2140

2.Helgerud, J., Engen, L., Wisløff, U., and Hoff, J. 2001. Aerobic endurance training improves soccer performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 33, pp.1925-1931.

3.Little, T., and Williams, A.G. 2007. Effects of sprint duration and exercise:rest ratio on repeated sprint performance and physiological responses in professional soccer players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 21. Pp. 646-648

4.Reilly, T. and White, C. 2005. Small sided games as an alternative to interval training for soccer players. In: Science and Football V: The Proceedings of the Fifth World Congress on Science and Football. Cited in Turner and Stewart (2014)

5.Turner, A.N., and Stewart, P.F. 2014. Strength and conditioning for soccer players. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 36 (4), pp1-13

6.Wisløff, U., Helgerud, J., and Hoff, J. 1998. Strength and endurance of elite soccer players. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 30, pp.462-467.