Vary Your Workouts to Maximize Gains

The following article was originally posted in our June 2015 Issue of Amplified Soccer Athlete magazine. Get the latest issue now.

Different length workouts improve different fitness components

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

When playing soccer, you need to be able to compete for a long period of time at different intensity levels. While all of us would love to be able to sprint at top speed for the entire match, our bodies are not equipped to be able to do so. In addition, there are times when slowing down makes more sense tactically. For example, when a team is attacking, often times they will possess the ball across the field in order to draw defenders to one side. This leaves openings on the other side of the field that can be exploited. Similarly, when defending, sometimes it is better to hold your position to block a passing lane instead of sprinting and leaving space unoccupied.

Covering ground at high speed is often the difference maker in games. The team or players that can move the fastest at the right time are usually more successful. When training to improve this capacity, however, it is important for you to understand a little about your body’s physiology and how it uses energy to allow movement. You do not have to be a scientist to be able to use these concepts, but you should have an idea of your body’s energy systems to help improve your training.

Briefly, the body has three different sources of energy that are used depending on the duration of the activity. Activities that last for only a few seconds, like jumping, diving, or very short sprints of a few seconds or less rely on the phosphocreatine system. Activities that last from 10 seconds to about a minute and a half rely on the lactic acid system. Both the phosphocreatine and lactic acid system are anaerobic, or produce energy without the use of oxygen. The third system, the aerobic system, is for activities that last longer than a minute and a half and relies on oxygen.

This brings out the main lesson – your training program should have some activities that train each system. Since the body’s response to training is specific, in order to improve each system you have to train each system. In my last article I wrote about high intensity interval training, also known as HIIT. HIIT is training by having higher intensity work bouts separated by periods of rest. High intensity is defined as the highest level that you can work for each specific system, but keep in mind that the highest intensity you can exercise at for aerobic workout will not be the same as for an anaerobic workout.

I want you to think about how fast you can run a mile, and how fast you can sprint the length of the field. My guess is that you can’t run the mile at the same pace as you run the full-field sprint, but you will be tired after each activity. The point is that you can perform HIIT when you run the mile by running a mile as fast as you can, recovering, and then running another mile and so on. The intensity for the mile is still high – it just isn’t as high as when you sprinted the length of the field.

The important point here is that as an athlete, you have 3 main systems that you use to provide energy during a soccer match, and it is important that you train all 3 systems. Training results in improvements – these improvements include being capable of working at a higher intensity for a given system, or being able to recover faster so you can repeat activities more often. Think of it this way – everyone will use the anaerobic and aerobic energy systems for all activities. A trained person could be able to use the aerobic system for an intensity level that an untrained person has to use the anaerobic system. Since the anaerobic system only allows activity for a minute or two, once that time has been reached, the untrained person will have to slow down or stop. The trained person will keep going!

The key point of this article is that when you are working on conditioning, you should perform HIIT at varying interval lengths. For best results, interval times of 10s, 30s, 1 min, 2min, and 4 min should be used. When I work with players, I like to use 6-10 minute work bouts, and rest intervals that are the same or a little longer than the work intervals. When you add the work and rest time together, you can determine the repetitions that can be completed. For example, if you are doing a 10s work and 10s rest workout, each repetition takes 20s, so for 8 minutes you will complete 24 sprints. For a 30s interval with 30s rest, you will complete 8 reps. Get it?

The Workout Plan

When varying your conditioning workouts, you can use two methods. Choose which works for you, and you can use both depending on your needs.

  1. During a conditioning session, perform multiple 6-8 minute bouts of exercises, but for each bout select a different work duration. For example, if you are going to perform 3 bouts, make the first 2 minute intervals, the second 30 s intervals, and the third 10 s intervals. Rest 4-5 minutes between bouts. Your intensity level will be different for each activity. Since you want to move as fast as possible for each activity, a good rule of thumb is to perform the first rep at your highest intensity and use that distance as the target distance for the rest of the reps. Since you will tire out, maybe use the first rep distance minus a few yards as the target.
  2. If you complete multiple conditioning sessions each week, make the focus of each session specific to an interval length, but change the focus each day. For example, one day is 10s intervals, the next is 30s intervals, and so on. Complete 3-4 bouts, but make each interval duration the same.

For each of these approaches, the length of time for the entire workout is about 25 minutes plus rest – not very much time but a lot of impact!