Combining Soccer Skills with Endurance Conditioning

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By Thomas Little

Soccer performance is dependent on a multitude of factors. Of these, technical skill and the physical capacity must be considered two of the most important. We will discuss why and how to improve soccer specific endurance and how to intertwine soccer specific endurance training and technical training.

Soccer Specific Endurance

Fitness in modern players has never been greater. However, reports of reduced distances, intensities and sprints, and increased injuries and goals, as a game progresses (Bangsbo, 1994; Ekblom, 1998) indicates that players often fatigue during a game, causing decrements to performance. Furthermore, a recent study by Helgurud et al. (2001) is the first to show a direct cause and effect relationship between improving endurance capacity and improving match play performance. This highlights the importance of training improving soccer endurance in most players.

As soccer seems to consist of repeated sprinting at intensities that could not be sustained by aerobic pathways, many people presume the aerobic system to be unimportant to key aspects of competition. However, on the contrary, it is factors related to aerobic endurance that are vital to maintain, and repeat high intensity efforts. During soccer, the aerobic system will be crucial in fueling the low to moderate activities, and as a means of recovery between high intensity bursts. An absence of PCr recovery upon the cessation of muscular blood flow suggests that PCr repletion is an aerobic process. Therefore, any repeated high intensity effort is dependent on aerobic processes. Enhanced aerobic fitness is believed to improve recovery from high intensity intermittent exercise through increased aerobic responses, enhanced lactate removal and improved PCr regeneration. An increased relative contribution of aerobic energy production will help to prolong the contribution of other more powerful energy systems, and spare muscle glycogen, thereby improving soccer specific endurance.

It appears that training the aerobic system will be crucial to improving soccer specific endurance. This has been traditionally tackled in soccer by using long low intensity runs. However, modern findings indicate that there are much more fruitful ways to develop the aerobic system for soccer.

Aerobic Training

This type of training most closely resembles the low intensity, long duration training mentioned above. However, it also incorporates training at intensities close to lactate threshold (~ 85-86% HRmax) and is considered optimal for improving this parameter. Lactate threshold represents the ability to maintain a high rate of energy production in a purely aerobic manner, and thereby maintain high running speeds for long durations. This intensity of training is considered optimal for producing skeletal muscle adaptations (aerobic enzymes, blood supply, etc.) that allow the muscles to exercise for prolonged periods. This type of training is often used early preseason to develop a solid base from which higher intensity work can be performed.

High Intensity Aerobic Training

This involves training at intensities that are approximately the minimum required to cause the oxidative system to work as maximally as possible (VO2max). Because it involves the minimal intensity that will do this, it allows for the longest duration where oxidative system will be working maximally. Thus, adaptations in the aerobic system are likely that allow you to work at high intensities for prolonged periods and quickly recover. Such training leads to significant improvements in VO2max, lactate threshold and work economy, the 3 key elements of aerobic endurance. Helgurud et al. (2001) have recently shown this type of training to improve endurance parameters, and more importantly, match performance in a group of elite soccerers.

Maximum Interval Training

Maximal or sprint interval training involves bouts, typically at maximum pace, ranging from ~ 20 s to 2 min interspersed by rest periods. These drills are an excellent method of simultaneously developing aerobic and anaerobic capacity, both vital to soccer performance. Additionally, this mode of training is thought to be optimal for stimulating increases in muscular lactate transporters. Greater removal of products associated with lactate will quicken recovery and increase the relative intensity at which subjects can sustain exercise.

The discussed methods of training the aerobic system are summarised in the table below.

The apparent obscurity and non-linearity of heart rates for the maximal intervals is because the short durations mean that for a significant proportion of the exercise time, the heart rate is rising to a steady state from resting levels. 

Another form of training for soccer endurance, that is gaining increasing popularity, is ‘duration specific sprint training’. This involves short sprint distances and times that a more similar to those performed during competition (2-5 s, 10-60 m). Recovery time is overloaded with respect to the work rest ratios involved in competition to produce a training stimulus greater than is elicited via normal competition. Such work durations are however, impractical for soccer games but can be introduced using various dribbling course, as opposed to just running.

The Combination of Soccer and Fitness Training

As discussed previously, soccer specific endurance and technical ability are probably the key elements of soccer potential. Therefore, if both these capacities could be trained simultaneously, it would be extremely beneficial.

Traditionally, soccer teams have used specific running drills in order to improve the fitness of teams. The principle advantage of using specific running fitness training is that the work rate of players can be precisely controlled. This allows physical trainers to apply predefined parameters from scientific findings to produce desired physiological outcomes and optimum fitness gains. Also, it ensures that players are given the similar workloads. The sporadic nature, and voluntary extent of movement during soccer games means that control over intensity is less precise, and therefore the likelihood of players working at inappropriate intensities is greater. This means that applying an optimal structure for fitness during soccer games is difficult. However, years of heart rate analysis from professional soccer training has revealed that certain soccer training drills elicit consistent work rates across different players and
repetitions. The use of heart rate monitoring was recently shown to be a valid indicator of intensity during soccer games by Hoff et al. (2002).

Although some coaches already use certain soccer drills for fitness, they commonly do so in a hap-hazard manner. Utilizing a soccer drill that elicits a consistent intensity means that important training principles can be utilized. Primarily, scientifically proven optimal training structures, in terms of number, and duration of repetitions, and rest periods, can be applied to the soccer drills. Furthermore, a consistency and knowledge of intensities associated with various soccer games, means that training principles of ‘progression’ and ‘periodization’ can be applied using soccer games. Progression refers to gradually increasing the training load as fitness gains are incurred so we are constantly overloading the trainees. Periodization generally refers to the optimal sequencing of different intensities of training throughout the season to achieve peak performance. Knowledge of the intensity of different training drills means that this sequencing can be applied using soccer drills.

Combining Skill Work with Conditioning the Advantages

There are many reason why combining skill and endurance conditioning work makes sense for the soccer player. Here are a few:

  • Motivation of the players is improved when soccer and competition is involved. This translates to greater intensities for longer periods of time than can usually be attained with traditional running
  • Simultaneous tactical and skills training can take place. Most if the drills involve considerable time directly involved in play, with lots of time in possession, and passing. Athletes are required to think under pressure and complete skills under fatigue
  • Many of the drills develop team work and communication
  • Withers et al. (1982) have shown that a player makes an average of 50 turns a game. Reilly (1996) has shown that moving sideways or backwards, and dribbling with the ball increases energy costs as opposed to normal running. Factors such as intermittent work, changing direction, multi-directional movements and performing skills with the ball, will be regularly encountered during soccer games, thus training the muscles to become more efficient during such activities and thereby improving soccer specific work economy.
  • The intermittent high speeds involved in some soccer drills will develop speed to a greater extent than runs using a constant pace
  • If the coaches monitor the session it provides an opportunity for more individualized and specialized fitness training.
  • Research on Rugby League players reported that skill-based conditioning games had lower injury rates during training (10.7%) then did traditional conditioning (37.5%). Therefore, the risk of injuries may be reduced using game conditioning.

Endurance Training Modalities, with Game Structure, Positional, and Time of Season Considerations

We will discuss how to best utilize these modes of training the aerobic system in relation to the time of the season, game structure, and positional considerations. We will also discuss other practical pointers as how to best use training games for fitness improvements and finally, present a sample of how with can be achieved.

Time of Season Considerations

While most coaches have excellent knowledge of tactical considerations in soccer training, few coaches have knowledge of how lay out different types of training throughout the training week and year so they produce optimal gains in fitness and performance. This process is commonly referred to as ‘Periodization’. Time cycles when using periodization consist of mesocycles, which represent a whole season, macrocycles, which are typically 4-6 weeks, and finally microcycles, which could represent a weekly or match-to match structure.

Early preseason, base endurance conditioning is often utilized to ease the players back into training and lay the endurance foundations for higher intensity work to follow. Therefore, lower intensity aerobic drills maybe used more predominantly early preseason but will be gradually used less as the season progresses. The high intensity aerobic drills should make up the core of the game based conditioning drills because of their superior conditioning qualities. High intensity aerobic drills optimally develop VO2max as well as effectively improving lactate threshold and work economy, while minimizing deficits in leg power and speed associated with endurance training. Their relatively short duration also means that they are time efficient. Maximal interval drills are also an excellent method of simultaneously developing aerobic and anaerobic capacity, both vital to soccer performance. These should form the secondary method of training behind high intensity aerobic drills during the bulk of the season. During macrocycles of training (4-6 weeks), the optimal method to periodize training is to build up volume, and then reduce the volume but increase training intensity. This would represent a progression of high intensity aerobic drills for the volume, followed by the use of the intense maximal intensity drills towards the end of the cycle. The progression of the drills can be done simply by following the advised progression shown within Soccer Conditioning for each drill.

Periodization for the mesocycle (whole season) is similar. Toward the end of the season, the overall volume of training should decrease but intense training should increase or remain constant. This results in increased power (via the intense methods and reservations of energy sources), improved endurance (by spiking blood volume and reservations of energy sources), and a decreased the risk of injury. Therefore, the prominence of maximal interval training should increase towards the end of the season, as aerobic, and high intensity aerobic drills decrease.

The positioning of competitive matches has a large influence on a training plan. Players must be as fit and fresh as possible on match day. Therefore, training load must be carefully planned to ensure that training does not over-fatigue players close to match day.

Part of the reason that high intensity aerobic sessions have the greatest effect on fitness, is due to the fact that they entail the greatest training load. Therefore, they should not be used in their full form within two days of competitive matches so the body is not overloaded and has time to recover. Watered down versions, in terms of lower reps and durations, could be used. Whatever the training circumstances, no more than three high intensity aerobic drills should be used per week, in order to avoid overtraining. Although maximal interval drills involve a very high intensity, their overall training load is relatively low. Therefore, it is recommended that maximal intensity drills can be used up to, but not within 1 day of competition. Although the training loads associated with aerobic drills can reach high levels, muscular fatigue associated with the drills is relatively low. Therefore, aerobic drills can be utilized right up to the day before competition. Aerobic drills can also be used when the muscles are not fully fresh, such as the day following an intense training day or match.

Table 2. Appropriate times to use the different modes of training

Positional Considerations

Variation in the activity profiles of different positions means that optimal endurance training may differ depending upon positional role. The tactical role of midfield players and full-backs is to link defence and attack. Therefore, these players are continually active, requiring the ability to produce high rates of aerobic energy production. This attribute is dependant on a high lactate threshold. Lactate threshold is best trained using aerobic and high intensity aerobic drills, which will concomitantly improve VO2max.

With strikers and centre-backs, it is rarely a demand of a game to sustain energy production in a purely aerobic manner, where lactate threshold would dominate performance. Strikers and central defenders require longer rest periods, as it is important that these players are not fatigued so they can run at maximum speeds when involved in play, and are generally involved in play more intermittently. Therefore, it is important that these players can recover quickly from maximal exercise. This is reflected in the rate at which O2 can be transported to recovering muscles between bouts, which is related to VO2max and the ability to remove waste products from the musculature. Anaerobic capacity will also be critical in order to produce and sustain maximal exercise. These attributes are best trained using maximal intensity and high intensity aerobic drills.

In reflection of the above, on occasion it may be beneficial to provide soccer specific endurance training based on playing position. However, recent motion analysis studies from competition report increasingly dissimilar movement profiles between center backs and strikers, and those presented from prior studies. Movement profiles are influenced by many factors such as tactics, the opposition and fitness levels, and therefore will be individual to each team. As such, coaches should analyze their team’s movement if they are to provide optimal positional specific training.

Tactical Considerations

Although the main purpose of the soccer conditioning drills is conditioning, part of their advantage lies in simultaneous tactical/skill training. The principle tactics a team uses in competition will vary between teams and this should be reflected in the selection of the game-conditioning drills. The coach will establish a long-term tactical themes, based upon his preference and the qualities of the squad, and also short-term themes based upon upcoming opposition, current performance and players available. Ideally, the conditioning games used should reflect the desired competition tactics of the coach.

The principle coaching elements of the soccer conditioning drills are listed below.

Gaining Possession

Pressuring opposing team, Directing play, Switch mentality from pressurizing to gaining possession and vice versa, Tracking runners, Tackling

Elements of receiving the ball

First touch control, Shape receiving ball, Selection of foot to receive ball, When to play ball back or turn, When to dribble or pass, Screening ability

Fundamentals of the game

Anticipation, Precision passing, Passing under pressure, Shooting, Crossing, Dribbling, Turning, Taking on opponents, Retaining shape

Switching play and creating space

Support play-angles and distance, Creating space-for long ball, time in possession, Selection of short or long ball, Position/Movement of support, Switching play

Systems of competitive tactics

Playing out from defense, Over-loading rapid counter attack, Playing through midfield, Hitting the front men

Conditioning Capacities

Agility, Maximum speed, Acceleration, Core strength

Adjusting Intensity of Soccer Conditioning Drills

  • Dr. Paul Balsom has shown that adjusting the duration of the drill has a significant effect on intensity. Generally, if you want to decrease intensity, suggest a longer duration and vice versa.
  • Increasing the size of the pitch generally increases the intensity and vice versa. However, if the pitch is made too large it can often lead to zonal movement patterns (i.e. defenders stay in rear of pitch) leading to a decrease in intensity.
  • If you want a low intensity game but the numbers are restricted, use a zonal marking system to restrict movement
  • Man to man marking generally increases the intensity, but touch restriction generally has a minimal effect on intensity

Although the training drills in Soccer Conditioning have been chosen for their consistency of intensity between players and repetitions, due to numerous variations in training circumstances, the intensities the drills produce can vary slightly between teams and repetitions. Variation in relative intensities between players tends to be greater with larger sided games due to the reduced involvement in play and therefore increased extent of voluntary movement. The use of heart rate monitoring will help identify player that need to adjust their intensity and help optimize training structure.

Utilization of Game Conditioning

Although game-conditioning does appear to have several advantages, I would not recommend that they completely replace more traditional running as a form of endurance conditioning. The principle reasons for this include: -

1. The psychology from feeling fit stems more from running because
- Running enables more definitive markers of progression (i.e. times, distances)
- Playing soccer may make some players feel that they have reduced the amount of fitness training.

2. The intensity of a session can be controlled more precisely during running.

3. Movement specific interval training is important to soccer endurance

4. Long distance sprinting is not often encountered using most soccer drills. Over longer distances, maximal speeds will be reached, where the hamstrings are utilised to a greater extent. Therefore, some maximal speed training is vital to prepare hamstrings for competition and help prevent injury.

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Performance Conditioning Soccer

Ken Kontor is founder and president of Performance Conditioning Inc. His company is the world’s largest single source of sports-specific conditioning information. Among the educational resources provided are Performance Conditioning Volleyball, Cycling and Soccer newsletters now in their 14th year of publishing and 15 sports-specific conditioning books and training card systems. He is a founding member of the USA Volleyball Sports Medicine and Performance Commission and was instrumental in the establishment of the Volleyball Conditioning Accreditation Program (V.C.A.P.) curriculum offered through the USA Volleyball Coaching Accreditation program. Among his contributions to this program was writing the curriculum. He has established the Off-bike Conditioning curriculum promoted by USA Cycling. In the past he has worked with USA Roller Sports and USA Triathlon producing conditioning specific newsletters. Prior to the establishment of Performance Conditioning Inc., Mr. Kontor was a founding father, executive director and publications editor of the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) for 14 years an organization of over 16,000 sport conditioning professionals. He was an original member of the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist committee that established the internationally recognized C.S.C.S. credential. He has traveled extensively throughout the world including the former Soviet Union, East Germany and the Leipzig Institute of Sport, Hungary and Bulgaria with the purpose of introducing their strength and conditioning methods to the NSCA membership. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Australian Strength and Conditioning Association Inc. and the National Strength and Conditioning Association of Japan. He has lectured extensively on the conditioning of athletes throughout the world.