The days of soccer players pounding the pavement mile after mile to increase their fitness levels are long gone. Soccer is a repeat sprint ability sport, requiring high-intensity movements followed by brief periods of rest over an extended period of time.1 The research shows how players with a higher VO2 max often play at higher competitive levels of soccer.2,3
In professional soccer, a typical preseason is six weeks in length before any competitive matches—these six weeks are a perfect time to develop the soccer-specific fitness qualities necessary for high-level performance in the sport. However, in the collegiate soccer setting, coaches are all too familiar with the 1-2 weeks of time they get to spend with their athletes before the first competition. Often, we see programs practicing twice per day to pack in as much fitness, tactical work, and skill development as possible.In order to maximize our 1-2 weeks pre-competition and reduce the risk of injury, we send out our preseason fitness program 6 weeks prior to arrival on campus, says @Coach_E_CSCS. Click To Tweet
In order to maximize our 1-2 weeks pre-competition and reduce the risk of injury, we expect our soccer athletes to arrive at a high fitness level. To reach the desired fitness level, we send out our preseason fitness program six weeks prior to arrival on campus. The plan below is:
- Can be accomplished anywhere.
- Can be individualized.
- Is evidence-based to improve VO2 max in the weeks leading up to the collegiate soccer preseason.
Day 1 of the six-week program will serve as both testing and fitness. The Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test is widely accepted as a valid test for measuring VO2 max in soccer players.4 There are two different variations of the Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test: level 1 and level 2. The difference between the two protocols is the speed at which the running begins (with level 1 being slower and level 2 being faster). Level 1 ends up being a longer duration test because of the slower starting speed. Utilizing the level 1 protocol, the standard I use for my collegiate soccer players is a team average of level 40 for females (20 for keepers) and level 50 for males (30 for keepers).
Testing is important to compare the athletes’ starting fitness levels to their post six-week fitness levels. Testing also allows coaches to assess how the athlete handles the stress and anxiety that comes with the test, as well as evaluate movement patterns such as acceleration and change of direction abilities.
For the first three weeks, I have the soccer players undulate their running. We have three different days that have three different emphases. Day 1 is the 4×4 method5, Day 2 is our 120% MAS day6, and Day 3 is our maximal velocity day.
To enhance athletes’ physical preparedness upon arrival to campus, we program in resistance training days that complement our fitness program. In the weeks leading up to beginning our fitness program, the athletes complete four days/week of resistance training. As we introduce the fitness program, we drop a day of resistance training (down to three days/week). This reduction in resistance training frequency allows us to introduce the fitness program without overtraining our athletes.
Every athlete’s schedule is different in terms of their day-to-day life, but we recommend that they attempt to run and resistance train on the same day. However, these sessions should be separated by six hours. The reason behind pairing the running and resistance training sessions on the same day is to allow the in-between days to truly be rest days from training. The athletes will complete individual skill/technical work, but that should not be detrimental to their training days.The reason behind pairing the running and resistance training sessions on the same day is to allow the in-between days to truly be rest days from training, says @Coach_E_CSCS. Click To Tweet
Consistent communication with the athletes is paramount—this gives us the ability to see how they are adapting to the program, if they are recovering, and if we need to modify the volume or training frequency. At the end of the day our plan is simply a blueprint, but we take into account all of the other factors that affect our athlete’s lives.
Four sets of four-minute runs at 90-95% max heart rate with three-minute recovery runs in between at 70% max heart rate.5 If our athletes have access to HR monitors, then we suggest they utilize them to get an accurate picture of their HR percentage. If they do not have access to HR monitors, we utilize a few simple cues. For the four-minute working portion, we inform the athletes that this time should be “hardly comfortable,” while during the recovery portion we use the cue “comfortably hard.”7
The athletes still receive a primarily anaerobic stimulus; however, the total volume or accumulation of time on this day provides an aerobic stimulus. This aerobic stimulus also appears on Day 2 and Day 3, but in different amounts.
Day 2 is shorter intervals and based on the Maximal Aerobic Speed (MAS) method.6 I start the athletes out at 120% MAS, which I calculate from their Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test score. They must achieve that distance in 15 seconds, then they are allowed 15 seconds of rest, and then repeat. I start them with two sets of five minutes with two-minute recoveries between sets. Each week I add one minute if they successfully achieve the distance of all of their runs. It is easier to progress them in total time than it is in distance.
We recommend that our athletes complete this day on the soccer pitch, as it provides enough straight-line distance to complete all of the runs in a shuttle style. See Baker6 for a complete diagram of how to set up the pitch for this day.
The third day is max velocity day. Now, max velocity running makes up a small portion of any soccer game; however, many times it can be the deciding factor for the outcome of a game.8 Many goals are preceded by an explosive movement or sprint to create separation from a defender. Max velocity also prepares the tissues for the demands of the sport, thus making the athletes more resilient.Max velocity running makes up a small portion of any soccer game; however, many times it can be the deciding factor for the outcome of a game, says @Coach_E_CSCS. Click To Tweet
I start the athletes out with 30 seconds of max effort running, or you can use 200-meter runs if you are on a track. I then let the athletes completely rest for four minutes (remember, we are sprinting, not doing aerobic work here). The first week we start small with three reps, and we add a rep each week as the athletes starts to adapt.
After three weeks of these three different runs, we add in a fourth day. The Day 4 emphasis is short duration and low volume compared to the other days, but very high intensity because it focuses on change of direction—specifically, 180-degree change of direction at high velocities. The amount of time and space the athlete has available prior to the change of direction task will ultimately decide the velocity at which they approach, and thus the intensity of the task. We can limit the approach velocity by modifying the amount of run-up space the athlete has, or we can also modify the intensity of the COD by having a smaller angle of change. Given the time of the year that we implement this COD task, we want to prepare the athlete for the most demanding aspects of their sport so they will be best prepared—this is why we selected the 180-degree angle.
Change of direction is a KPI for soccer players. During a soccer match, players will utilize a change of direction movement 90-100 times.9 An explosive and efficient transition from defense to offense can give the athlete the advantage they need to score a game-changing goal; likewise, if an athlete can transition from attacking to defending, they can potentially negate a game-deciding goal.
Breakdown of Change of Direction Day
- Two cones are placed 5 yards apart in a straight line.
- The athlete begins with a dynamic lateral shuffle to the outbound cone.
- At the outbound cone, they employ a crossover step to change direction.
- The athlete then accelerates back to the start cone.
- As the athlete approaches the start cone, they begin to decelerate.
- They employ a crossover step again to change directions.
- The athlete finishes the rep by accelerating through the outbound cone.
The entire run is completed with maximum intent. The rest intervals can range anywhere from 45 to 60 seconds, as we want the athlete to be fully recovered before running another round. When we first implement this into the program, we keep the volume low—2-3 reps on each side—and gradually increase the volume by 1 rep/side each week.
Results and Recommendations
The program concludes with a final Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test to assess performance improvements. In general, if athletes scored lower on the initial assessment, we will see a greater overall improvement after the six weeks: It is not uncommon to see an athlete go from level 25 pre to level 37 post. On the other end of the fitness spectrum, when athletes have a high initial assessment fitness level (40+), we see less of a percent change from pre to post test. However, these athletes still improve their post-test scores by 3-6 levels. What we have seen in the past with our athletes is that the athletes who test higher on the Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test upon arrival to campus sustain fewer soft tissue injuries throughout the 1- to 2-week team training period prior to competition.
Previous methods of improving VO2 max for soccer players included large amounts of aerobic-based running. As we can see from the current research, purely aerobic work is not optimal for increasing soccer players’ fitness levels. Yes, we get an aerobic stimulus every day throughout the course of training, but our main focus is to improve the repeat sprint ability of our soccer players.Yes, we get an aerobic stimulus every day throughout the course of training, but our main focus is to improve the repeat sprint ability of our soccer players, says @Coach_E_CSCS. Click To Tweet
Soccer can be a complicated sport to program for, with many athletic qualities important for success. Just like coaches who undulate the weight room aspect of training to hit multiple qualities, we can undulate our running programs to hit multiple qualities. At the end of the day, focus on the qualities you want to train, be consistent with the training and the progressive overload of those qualities, and keep it simple. Lastly, save all the fitness-based small-sided games for in-season to keep athlete motivation high.
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