Jeff loved to run. Although just a kid, he ran about 20 miles a week on his own throughout the year, in addition to practicing with his team and playing informally with friends.
Jeff's role during games was to just keep running until the opposing defenders fatigued, at which time he would inevitably find an opportunity to one-touch a crossing ball into the net. Most of his goals came late.
As it turned out, Jeff went on to become not a professional soccer player but an amateur marathon runner, but he set a clear example for all youth soccer coaches and players to heed: Don't be fooled by the ball.
In terms of its physical demands, soccer shares more in common with marathon running than it does with other ball sports such as basketball and tennis. Soccer has a bigger playing field than any other major sport and less stoppage. In a typical game, a soccer player might spend a cumulative two minutes in possession of the ball and more than 30 minutes' running, covering a few miles in the process.
For all of these reasons, there are few greater advantages one team can have over another than better running endurance.
Nevertheless, most coaches approach fitness as a potential liability rather than as a potential advantage. In other words, they seek to make their players fit enough to "survive" a full game rather than seeking to make them fitter than their opponents.
Finding this advantage does not require that you force all your players to run 20 miles a week or neglect skills and strategy in favor of conditioning work.
It requires only that you do the following five things better than the average coach does.
1. Build a solid base. Many coaches make the mistake of assuming that because soccer involves a lot of anaerobic work, soccer conditioning should be primarily anaerobic as well. While anaerobic training is essential for soccer players, this training is much more effective when preceded by a phase of fitness "base building" that is primarily aerobic in nature.
The improvements in oxygen consumption capacity, muscle glycogen storage, and fat burning efficiency that come with aerobic training are the foundation for later gains in strength, speed, power, and anaerobic endurance.
Ideally, this base phase should last at least six weeks and should take place during the off-season. Encourage your players to jog, bicycle, swim, skate, or undertake any other aerobic activity they enjoy on a regular basis during the off-season.
But you can't assume all your players will heed this recommendation, so you should emphasize moderate-intensity running during the first few weeks of team training before you begin to emphasize anaerobic conditioning with drills such as shuttle runs.
2. Set concrete fitness goals. One of the important means that runners use to measure and achieve progress in their fitness is to run against the stopwatch. Very few soccer coaches set concrete fitness goals with their players, so here is a great opportunity for you and your team to get a step ahead of the competition.
I recommend creating a fitness test such as a shuttle run that you administer every few weeks with your team. For example, have each player complete a 300-meter shuttle run (in a 10-20-30-40-50 format), rest for five minutes, and then repeat it. Players will show progress not only by improving their overall times, but also and especially by narrowing the gap between their first and second run times.
3. Train for recovery. The major difference between soccer endurance and the kind of endurance marathoners need is that soccer players tend to sprint and recover repeatedly, whereas runners maintain a consistent, prolonged effort. Soccer endurance is all about being able to recover quickly from high-intensity bursts. Among the best ways to cultivate this ability is through a sprint workout in which you progressively lessen the duration of recovery periods during the course of the season.
For example, you might have your players run 10 x 15 meters, then 3 x 50 meters, and then 2 x 100 meters. Initially, allow them to rest three seconds for each second they spend running. As the season progresses, gradually reduce the recovery periods until your players are running more than they are resting.
4. Fuel the muscles properly. Most youth players fail to take full advantage of all that is now known about fueling muscles during practices and games. Players should use only a quality sports drink to supply all of their body's hydration, energy, and nutrition needs. Water is not sufficient, and other sources of nutrition such as fruits and fruit drinks do not provide energy in its fastest-acting or most digestible form.
A good sports drink rehydrates players faster than water and provides plenty of carbohydrates to fuel the muscles and delay fatigue. An increasing number of professional players, including several members of the 2002 U.S. World Cup roster, are now turning to sports drinks that contain protein, as well. The addition of protein to a sports drink extends endurance even further and also reduces post-exercise muscle soreness.
Encourage your players to begin each game with as much sports drink in their stomach as they can tolerate without discomfort. Not only does greater stomach volume translate into more energy, but it also speeds the delivery of this energy to the muscles.
Players should also start the second half with a high stomach volume, and should get a gulp from the sideline at every available opportunity during stoppages in play.
5. Simulate game conditions. Rather than organize low-energy practices wherein players are frequently "waiting their turn" to participate in some drill, try to make each practice session as game-like as possible. Include scrimmage time in each practice and make an effort to include a running component in most of the drills you select.
Keep in mind that larger fields of play and small-sided scrimmages facilitate running more than their alternatives. If your players expend just a little bit more energy in each practice than other teams do, they will wind up being substantially fitter on game day.
Rick Guter is the Team Physiotherapist and Athletic Trainer for the D.C. United soccer club. He has twice been named MLS Trainer of the Year and has served as Head Athletic Trainer for nine U.S. National Teams. Rick has also worked as a physical therapist and athletic trainer at Vanderbilt Sports Medicine Center. He graduated magna cum laude in athletic training from Arizona State University and later earned his physical therapy degree from the University of Central Arkansas. Rick is also a competitive amateur triathlete.
Copyright 2002 by Poweringmuscles. Published with permission. For cutting-edge sports nutrition info, visit www.poweringmuscles.com.