Teaching Running Efficiency — The Rhythmic Stride Pattern Approach

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By Phil Rose, PT, CSCS; Founder Fit2Play Soccer Speed and Skills Training; Performance Conditioning Specialist, Mako Soccer Club, Port St Lucie, FL

Phil Rose has spent 35 years playing, coaching and conditioning soccer athletes. He has achieved five national and one international coaching license, including the English FA Coaching Award. He is currently the NSCAA State Technical Director—Florida (West)—and an NSCAA Associate Staff Coach. He is National Youth Training Director for Soccer Trainers of America (STA) and President ofFit2Play Soccer Speed and Skills Training . He is a certified personal trainer with the National Endurance Sports Teachers Association (NESTA). Phil specializes in the design and development of soccer-specific circuit training. [Ed.]

Rhythmic Stride Pattern Running is a simple approach to the study of soccer movement skills of individual athletes. Based on these initial skills, training of athletes to gain running efficiency on which to build soccer-specific speed is our mission.

In training soccer athletes there are only two things to consider: movement of the players with a ball and movement of the players without a ball. There are 22 players on the field and one ball. Movement training is the process of gaining efficiency based on either scenario; i.e., moving with or without a ball. The first thing soccer coaches should consider when developing speed skills of their players, is an assessment of how the players move. Movement incorporates many different things including running styles, turning techniques, first step footwork and the various parts of the body working in coordination to affect efficient soccer movement.

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When assessing player movement, a challenge facing many coaches is having to change the way their players move. It is something I do on a regular basis. Until one addresses the way each player moves, it is difficult to achieve optimum result with the way the team moves on the field. From personal experience, I had a center/forward who wasn’t scoring goals and as a coach, I knew she wasn’t living up to her goal scoring potential. One of the first things I saw was that she was taking off on the wrong foot and her arms were always out like airplane wings. Over a period of several months, I changed her style of running by working on arm movement, balance and rhythmic stride. Now she generally scores two or three goals a game. Her running is more productive and she is more balanced and relaxed when in control of the ball.

Another challenge coaches’ face is trying to gather overall team information by observing the movement of the entire team. The technique I use is to single out one player at a time and take the time to analyze how that player moves, step-by-step. This takes focus and discipline on the coach’s part.

Soccer Movement Analysis Step-by-Step

Posture: The first thing to address is posture. Does the player run upright? Many players lean forward. Once the correct position is achieved the next consideration is getting into a lower “athletic” position.

Balance: Observe players. Are they balanced as they move? Can they recover onto the front foot quickly? Do they go to ground too easily after a tackle or challenge?

Core/Hip Position: This is related to posture. The athletic running position comes from a strong core. The pelvis needs to remain in a neutral position avoiding pelvis tilt. Hip alignment with the feet and shoulders is also important. Look at the players straight on. Where is the position of the feet in relation to the hips? Do they plant straight on or do they flair out to the side? The most important aspect of good hip position is demonstrated when a player has to plant and go in a different direction—a common move in soccer especially for defenders having to make recovery runs. Poor hip position, as well as lack of core strength, will create two or three
additional steps a player will make executing a turn.

Foot Movement: Here, distance of the stride and foot placement is important. Is the player landing on his or her heel or the toe?

Arm Placement: Incorrect arm position can mean a loss in movement power because the arms flaps in the air like sails in the wind.

Shoulder Position: Are the shoulders square? Some players will lead with one shoulder when leaning into the run.

Head Position: What I look for is a firm head. The face should be relaxed but the head should not be moving from side to side.

Movement Changes: Younger athletes with less ingrained motor skills will be easier to work with in correcting movement. Older athletes with years of doing it wrong will be more of a challenge. A lot of coaches will immediately start using training aids such as ladders. These
devises are visual aids for the athletes; however, if you take away the ladder they have difficultly visualizing how they should run. These devises serve a purpose in learning new motor running skills but it’s important to transfer those running skills to soccer skills.

Creating Efficient Running—Step Training Exercises: The area that has the most immediate impact on improving soccer movement is teaching efficient running patterns. Efficiency can mean a lot of different things, but for our purposes it’s to get a rhythmic pattern to the run. Players will take different numbers of steps to complete a specific distance. This is arrhythmic running.

The step training exercises is designed specifically to increase rhythmic pattern efficient running. This exercise is done by placing markers or cones every 10 yards the length of a soccer field. Players work in groups of two. I try to pair up the players based on their physical stature so that the length of their legs is similar. Based on observation the players are assigned a specific number of steps to take between the cones. As the players become more efficient, the number of steps can be reduced accordingly. This efficiency also equates to energy savings while running. Irregular stride patterns and all that comes with those irregular patterns leads to an earlier onset of fatigue because of using too much energy to cover the distance.

Another dimension of step training exercises is to observe foot placement. Ideally, the players are landing with their feet straight; however, one will often see the feet flaring to the sides. Another variation of foot placement is to have the athletes land on their heels rather than toes every fifth stride.

Running efficiency leads to quick turning efficiency because the athletes avoid having to take an extra step or two to make a turn. For defenders, the resulting time wasted can mean not keeping up with a player; to a forward it means not getting to the ball to score a goal. I must emphasize that this is not a speed exercise nor is it designed to see how fast the players can run or determine their stamina. These qualities will be built later. Movement skills need to be as second nature to the players as striking a soccer ball or making a pass. With practice it becomes automatic. Priority is placed on movement skills. After the run exercises a ball is introduced at to keep player interest high.

Program Considerations: Since this program is such an important aspect of the development of soccer players we initially approach it as a separate activity as opposed to part of a practice session. In a club setting we would practice three times a week with one day devoted to movement training. The session, with warm-up, lasts one hour. As the season approaches the program is integrated into regular practice sessions and is done right after warm-up but before technical ball work.

For an hour-long session, recovery time is complete to insure quality work. This recovery time is reduced as the players start to gain a good running rhythm. The initial phase of the workout is having all 16 players (divided into two groups) jog around a 20 x 20 yard area. During this time, the players are counting their strides up to 10 and then repeat. It’s almost like we are up against a metronome with the players giving their own verbal cues. We work for two minutes at a time and rest by walking but still encourage the players to count their strides. Each subsequent two-minute workout is done with increased tempo.

To work on balance and control during the session I will tell the players to freeze. The athletes immediately stop and stand on one leg. The next time I tell them to freeze they have to stop and stand on the opposite leg. They hold this position for five or six seconds. 

As the players progress, we introduce a ball in the training area and have them do two strides and touch the ball whilst dribbling. This gives an idea of the distance of the ball in relationship to the stride. We finish with the step training series described previously. Build up to gain speed.

Age Considerations:  Training for younger athletes (8-11) is the same. Rhythmic stride pattern running is really not appropriate for this younger group but teaching good running technique is essential. At puberty, gender differences start to occur. Boys have a tendency to run as
fast as they can to cover a distance without consideration for the amount of energy they are expending. With girls, arm movement is more inconsistent. They tend to have their arms out more. Girls are more open to the stride pattern rhythmic training than boys. With boys it’s hard to get across the logic that if you conserve yourself you can get to the goal just as quickly but will have more energy to perform the soccer skill necessary to make the play. Also at puberty, girls’ running form begins to change and that is when this type of training is really important.

In youth soccer there is a tendency to try to play soccer too fast. By doing rhythmic stride pattern training coaches will build a good foundation for progressive speed training specific to the sport of soccer.

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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.