Participation at amateur level remains high, with thousands of matches taking place on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings all over the country. The lack of success of our national squads may, in part, be due to the curious reluctance of many professional clubs to take on board the abundant expertise in the field of sports science that is now readily available. Many clubs still neglect what are considered as basic principles in training, preparation and nutrition, ideas that have been used to great effect in other sports for some time.
Demands of the sport
As with all team sports, playing position clearly affects the physical requirements. It is generally accepted that a goalkeeper does not need the same level of aerobic conditioning as a central midfielder. The distance covered by outfield players has been well researched. In a match, they each cover about six miles, though this obviously depends on whether you are a utility midfield player or a sweeper. There does not appear to be much difference between the distance covered by the top professionals and non-elite players.
This means that all outfield players need a reasonable level of aerobic conditioning. When aerobic power has been measured in football players V02max values tend to be in the 50 to 60 ml/kg/min. This is a little below the value one would expect for 10K runners, who cover the same sort of distance in their competition. The reason is that a 10K runner keeps up a sustained pace at a high percentage of V02max, while a football player may cover the ground in a variety of ways: sprinting short distances, jogging, walking, shuffling and moving sideways and backwards. With this in mind, the training program should consist of more than steady state running, or basic interval training around a track, in an attempt to mimic the movement patterns of an actual game.
Development of speed is essential in football, where ability to reach the ball first, or outrun opponents, is paramount. Good football players will turn out 30 metre sprint times of well under 4 seconds, yet this alone is not enough. Speed endurance is vital as well, to maintain that pace throughout a match, especially during intense bursts. Agility is another important factor, since quick lateral movements may help you to feign and evade opponents. When it comes to set pieces, the tall and strong players are usually the target men. Leg strength and power are a crucial part of jumping ability. All round muscular strength is important in such a physical game, thus the musculature associated with sound posture should also be well toned to reduce the risk of injury.
Phases of Training
With a season that lasts from the end of August to May, it is difficult to be in peak condition for every match, the dream of any manager! Much conditioning training takes place in the summer months, preparing for the winter campaign. Most of the running training is done then and strengthening work carried out. In some European countries the season is split into two halves, with a break over the Christmas period. This double periodised year gives a physiological benefit and is likely to reduce the number of injuries. One current Premier League team follows this philosophy even though there is no break in our playing season; it simply goes back to endurance work midway through the winter. The problem here is that players run the risk of being over tired in matches during this period and lose speed and sharpness.
The Training week
The training week is likely to be focused around the matches that are scheduled. Many professional teams have an easy day before a match, with just light skills work and travel, while the day after is usually a rest day. This does not leave much chance for physical training, especially when a manager wants to work on skills. Such work will include multiple sprints, perhaps within the penalty area, with short recovery periods before the next burst. Shuttle sprints are very popular with team managers because the sessions are easy to structure and monitor. However, an astute manager should avoid the "no pain, no gain" philosophy prevalent in the sport and choose a more appropriate workout.
Recovery runs the morning after a match can prepare players for the next batch of training and will help maintain an endurance base. These runs can last for up to an hour, provided the players are fit enough and intensity is kept at a low level. Workouts to develop speed, such as running drill sessions or resistance training exercises, need not be exhausting and are most effective when players are not heavily fatigued. It is important to remember that small sided games, commonly used for practice, are themselves a form of physical conditioning training more specific to the demands of the sport than any strength or running workout, so they do not necessarily have to be followed by an "eyeballs-out" interval session.