Getting Fit by Going Fast

Short, Fast Intervals will help you have energy for later in the game!

By John De Witt, Head Sports Performance Coach, Houston Dynamo Academy

Soccer is a series of high intensity runs, like sprinting, that are separated by some lower intensity activities, like jogging, walking, or standing. The best players are the ones that can continue to perform high intensity activities later in the game. There have been numerous studies that investigate the speed and distance covered by soccer players. In a study I worked on, we found that English professional players cover on average over 11 km per match, with up to 1200 m (3/4 mile) covered while sprinting. Others found that teams that tend to win also tend to cover more sprinting distance in the last 15 minutes of the game than those who lost.

If the solution is to run faster later in the match, then why doesn’t everyone just run faster? This is because your body relies on different energy systems when you run at different speeds, and the way you use the energy you have depends on your fitness. When you run at a moderate speed, like a speed that you can keep steady at for 5 minutes or more, your body is using the aerobic system, which relies on oxygen for energy. Your body is made to be very good at allowing aerobic exercise to carry on for a long time – the more fit you are, the faster you can run while still using the aerobic system.

When you sprint, your muscles have to develop a lot of force very quickly. During these times, you rely on anaerobic energy, which uses sugars in your blood for energy. The tradeoff for the explosive activity, however, is that 1) you use the sugars up very quickly and when you run out, you have to stop, and 2) when your muscles use the sugars for energy, they create lactic acid, and when too much lactic acid accumulates, you have to stop.

The best solution is to try to increase your fitness levels so that you can rely on oxygen as your main energy source. However, the truth is that no matter how aerobically fit you get, you will always rely on anaerobic energy when sprinting. Therefore, it is important to work on your anaerobic system endurance, also known as repeated sprinting ability

Focus on the recovery!

When you perform sprints, lactic acid builds up. When you stop, your body recovers by eliminating the lactic acid. The faster the lactic acid is removed, the quicker you can perform your next sprint. In soccer, most of the time you can’t choose when to rest and when to start your next sprint, but instead you have to react to the game. During times when you have to start your next sprint before you are fully recovered, you will still be able to sprint, but for a shorter amount of time. Think of it like this: Imagine that the lactic acid you develop fills up a measuring cup. When the cup is full, you have to stop and rest. When you stop and rest, the cup empties, but at a certain rate. When you are more anaerobically fit, you 1) have a larger cup, and 2) your cup empties faster. If your cup isn’t empty when you start your next sprint, you can still sprint, but you have less of the cup to fill – get it?

The key to increasing your repeated sprint ability is to work on emptying your cup - in other words, work on improving your body’s ability to recover between sprints. For this the best thing to do is call High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT. During HIIT training, you perform a high intensity interval, followed by a recovery interval, and then you repeat. Many scientists have shown that HIIT is the best way to improve your fitness. The good news about HIIT is that it doesn’t take long to do – you can do a complete workout in 15 min.  The tradeoff is that you have to work at very high intensity and you have to maintain intensity for the training to benefit you. But you need to remember – 15 minutes of hard work once or twice a week can make a HUGE difference in your 80-90 minute game, so it is well worth the effort.

The Workout

The following workout is based on 10 second sprits and 10 second rests. Since this is a hard workout, try not to do it the day before you play. The best would be to do it 3 days before your next game if possible. Try this once a week to start.

The distance you cover during the 10 second sprint should be challenging, but not impossible. Remember that this workout is not about how you do at the beginning, but about how well you can keep up your speed at the end. The key is to improve you body’s ability to recover so you can keep on sprinting after the other team is exhausted!

  1. Figure out a distance for your 10 s sprint – I suggest 45-50 yards as a start. After your first workout, you can decide if you want to make it longer or shorter
  2. Sprint the distance in 10 s or less – make sure you sprint so it is better to take less than 10 s then it is to slow down so it takes exactly 10 s
  3. Rest for 10 s
  4. Repeat
  5. Do this for 5 minutes – that will be 15 sprints and 15 rests
  6. Rest for 4 minutes
  7. Repeat the 5 min HIIT
  8. Rest for 4 min
  9. Repeat the 5 min HIIT

In the end you will have run for 15 minutes, and rested for 8 min, for a total of 23 minutes. During that time you will have completed 45 sprints. If you run 50 yards per sprint, you will cover 2250 yards, which is about a mile and a quarter. Remember – these are about recovery!

Tips to make it harder: 1) perform 6 or 7 minute sets; 2) increase distance; 3) decrease distance, but perform with a ball; 4) Instead of running a straight line, add 1 or more change of directions – if you do this, decrease your distance by about 3 yards for each change of direction to account for the time and effort necessary for directional changes.

Good Luck!