Speed, agility, and fitness are perhaps the three most coveted physical attributes for a soccer player. On the surface, these are distinct and separate traits, but due to the demands imposed by a sport that requires continuous movement for more than 90 minutes, these physical qualities take on a unique blend that changes every game as well as every training session.
Speed, agility, and fitness do not exist in a vacuum, and as a consequence, each influences the other. As a result, a holistic approach that subtly develops all three concurrently is optimal. This is easier said than done when adding in technical and tactical sessions as well. Due to the complexity of this task, a lot is still misunderstood about the correct approach and far too often any physical shortcomings are perceived to be a “lack of fitness.”
There are many fallacies regarding fitness in soccer, but this article will quickly highlight three of the biggest misconceptions. What is often blamed on poor conditioning is in fact due to:
- Lack of technical skill and/or tactical inferiority.
- Lack of speed.
- Too much steady-state cardio and detonating the glycolytic “bomb.”
1. Lack of Technical Skill and/or Tactical Inferiority
Building a bigger and more economical engine with well-executed physical prep is very helpful but still subordinate to the actual skills required to play the game. Good performance training supports and enhances the ability to carry out the specific task, but cannot replace playing the sport itself—which will always be the ultimate sport-specific prep. A team of superior athletes can be rendered useless if technical skill and tactical awareness are lacking.A team of superior athletes can be rendered useless if technical skill and tactical awareness are lacking, says @houndsspeed. Click To Tweet
In soccer, the team that dictates tempo and controls most of the possession will often appear to be “fitter” and “fresher,” particularly late in games, because the ball always moves faster than any player can and does so at no expense to the important energy reserves of the team in control. Conversely, the subtle defensive shifting and repositioning for the team chasing comes at a cost and slowly depletes fuel. This is often mislabeled as a lack of fitness, but the reality is that the other side is just technically and tactically superior.
To reconcile the technical, the tactical, and the physical, it is important to ensure that the physical development does not become detrimental to the sport itself, so training efficiency becomes critical. Compound exercises that develop multiple attributes, address the appropriate energy system (ATP-CP), and reflect the appropriate force-velocity relationships (speed and speed-strength) are best. Quickly pursuing optimal development, not minimal or maximal, with as succinct an exercise menu as possible will allow athletes to continue to grow physically in a holistic manner while still affording the necessary amount of time to master their actual craft.
2. Lack of Speed
Speed kills, and many game-changing plays can be accredited to pace or lack thereof. From a physical perspective, this is still likely the biggest collective “miss” in the soccer community. Despite its extraordinary value, very few coaches go about developing speed properly with maximal efforts of less than six seconds with complete recovery.
This is important because many endurance issues are the result of insufficient top-end speed. Quite simply, as an athlete becomes faster, they become more fuel-efficient at submaximal paces. Relatively speaking, the faster athlete will have to dedicate less of their energy reserves to run at the same speed as a slower athlete. This phenomenon is referred to as “speed reserve,” and despite being well known in the track community, it has yet to become mainstream in the soccer world.Despite its extraordinary value, very few soccer coaches go about developing speed properly with maximal efforts of less than six seconds with complete recovery, says @houndsspeed. Click To Tweet
Soccer players are not track athletes, but they most definitely can benefit from training methods like that of a short sprinter—particularly because the phosphocreatine system is the predominant energy source for both soccer players and short sprinters alike.
3. Too Much Steady-State Cardio and Detonating the Glycolytic ‘Bomb’
Devaluing maximal outputs such as speed and power is often symptomatic of inefficient energy system development. As it specifically relates to conditioning for soccer athletes, there is an over-reliance on slow, steady-state cardio and heavy glycolytic shuttles. Soccer primarily is a game of repetitive, alactic efforts built on a robust aerobic foundation. Having strong cardiovascular fitness allows for quicker recovery times between intensive efforts and the ability to build increased volume of alactic outputs over time.
Although slow, steady-state cardio addresses aerobic development, it does so inefficiently. Activities such as jogging train poor movement qualities that ultimately do not reflect the dynamic nature of soccer. Hard shuttles and extended anaerobic efforts of 15-45 seconds feel productive because of the resultant glycolytic burn but miss the mark in terms of intensity and duration. Specific conditioning is, and always will be, best developed by playing soccer.
The intensity of sessions can be manipulated by changing the size of sides, space provided, and duration of play, with intensity often being inversely proportional to the number of players as well as the size of the playing space. Good general prep must first acknowledge that nothing is more specific than the sport itself. This always establishes the appropriate reference point from which to work backward and toward more general forms of physical development.
Next, general conditioning should reflect the intensities and durations demonstrated within the game itself. Repetitive anaerobic outputs of less than 10 seconds—with limited recoveries—should be the goal for most soccer athletes. Organically, very high levels of general fitness can be achieved by changing nothing but recovery times, submax intensities, run distances, and total volume of distance run. As result, I have really grown to appreciate short tempo runs of 40-80 yards for soccer athletes. Specifically, these are a great way to simultaneously mirror the energy requirements of the game, support speed development, and alleviate some of the eccentric loading from a sport that requires continuous change of direction.
The tempo work can be further divided into more intensive or extensive types of sessions with good intensive work being defined as approximately 85%-90% efforts totaling 800-1,200 yards of volume and extensive tempos of roughly 75%-80% intensities equaling 1,500-2,000 yards total volume. Recovery times of 30-90 seconds (dependent on session goal, intensive versus extensive) maintain a good balance between sustaining an elevated heart rate and still being mindful of good speed principles.Pure speed work that addresses both acceleration and max velocity with quality tempo work to support this should form the backbone of a good preparedness regime for the soccer athlete. Click To Tweet
With this in mind, pure speed work that addresses both acceleration and max velocity with quality tempo work to support this should form the backbone of a good preparedness regime for the soccer athlete. Completely analogous to touches on a ball, quality volume as it relates to ground contacts matters from both a speed and a fitness perspective, so the objective would be to wisely build over time.
On the Training Ground
Speed, power, fitness, and technical skill can all peacefully coexist, but there must be a distinct hierarchy of priorities that starts with soccer and intelligently reverse-engineers to more general physical needs.
Pragmatically, looking at the energy requirements of the game and utilizing means that both reflect these demands and improve a player’s ability to navigate these same concerns is the name of the game for a performance coach. Mastery for the performance coach then should encourage pursuing the most direct path to the optimal end.
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