Soccer doc learns the painful truth about the importance of specificity in training

Recently I spent a great weekend in Winchester, Va., with my lifelong friend Karen Schultz and her husband Gene and son Ben. I spoke about knee injuries to physical therapy students, then later had the opportunity to go watch a local girls team train indoors under the steady hand of James Wood High School coach Mark Pennypacker.

After watching an hour of training, Mark asked if I wanted to join in for scrimmage. That was like offering candy to a child. I played three games to five.

I learned something that night: Pain can be quite instructive.

I stepped on the floor without any warm-up, thinking I would just take it easy, trap and pass and let the kids run. That lasted all of a couple seconds. Within minutes, I was bent over, sucking wind harder than I can remember in recent history.

I know what lactic acid buildup feels like and I was beyond buildup and approaching overflowing. Please, would one of these girls PLEASE score so I can take a break!

Finally, a score, and I practically crawled to the water fountain. OK, I know what I did wrong: no warm-up. I asked my body to go from rest to very high-intensity sprints, dribbling and trying to catch up to passes sure wish they would pass to my feet.

The pH from lactate was making my legs feel so heavy and tired. Oh, no. They are calling me back. Already?

Second round. A little rest and water seems to have done me good. The running is less stressful, I'm able to turn quicker, ball control is improved, passes are crisper, and importantly, ninth-grade girls arent making me feel like my actual age.

I feel more like I know (or at least remember) what I am doing. Fifth goal leads to another break, but this break doesnt feel like its needed. Lets get back to playing.

Third round. A few players are swapped and off we go again. After a while some parents are showing up. Now I am glad that we are about finished. I am tired, but I had a good time. It is a short drive back to the Schultzs, but I am already starting to tighten up. I cant wait for tomorrow.

Saturday morning brings about more pain make that more learning. It is called "delayed onset muscle soreness." I dont run much any more due to residual heel pain from an extended bout of plantar fasciitis, but I do ride the stationary cycle so my endurance is not bad. But my legs are really sore "groan with every movement" sore. Ask the Schultz family.

The front of my lower legs are sore because I havent had to move my foot into all the needed positions. My calf muscles are sore because I havent sprinted in some time and those are tired from pushing off. My quads and hams are sore from running, from stopping, from kicking, from changing directions.

But the most soreness is located in my adductor muscles the groin muscles. You never know how much you use those muscles until they remind you with soreness the next day; from all the pushing off when reaching for a tackle and changes of direction.

The reason for the pain is pretty well understood. When muscles develop force while lengthening, a great deal of force is generated, leading to damage to some muscle cell membranes. The result is the internal environment of the muscle gets upset with damage to the part of the muscle that develops tension the sarcomere which leads to pain the next day.

Not much has been shown to prevent this soreness (other than regular training), although vitamins C and E seem to help speed up the repair; a welcome addition to some sports drinks.

This pain is evidence of damage, and repair of this damage is one of the bodys quickest adaptations. An old coaching adage says "to get rid of soreness, do what ever it was that made you sore," and that is correct. Had I gone out and played Sunday (the day after our game) instead of watching the Super Bowl, I wouldnt feel nearly as bad on Monday as I did on Saturday.

Play again, and the soreness would be even less until it would essentially disappear.

You are probably saying that the moaning of an ex-player has little value to you as a current player or coach, but really it does.

How many times have you seen teams going through a fairly passive pre-game warm-up? A little ball work, some stretching, maybe a little 5v2 and now it is time for kickoff. You wonder why the first 10-15 minutes of the game just dont seem to be clicking, but after a while things start to look better.

The same thing can happen at the start of the second half. Why? The warm-up for the first half wasnt specific to the game too passive, not enough higher-intensity work prior to kickoff. Warm-up is supposed to bring you up to the demands of the game, not just break a sweat.

And the second half? The players have just spent the last 15 minutes sitting and listening to first half review and second-half plans, then are expected to step right out and play. Not good. The first 15 minutes will be tentative and less cohesive than envisioned, but the next 15 minutes are pretty good.

And the soreness? In order to be prepared to for play, all players need to have gone through lots of changes of direction. Playing 11v11 in practice just is not intense enough. Smaller-sided games require more of everything so emphasis should be placed on these games.

Straight-ahead running trains a player to run straight ahead. Activities suggested by coaches for players should require many changes of direction and agility work, especially as training camp approaches. A player who has run distances in the preseason will have good endurance, but may well be so sore from soccer training at the start of camp that they have problems processing the coachs lessons and insights.

The more agility type of work that is done, the more prepared for the quick changes of direction required in the game.

From a training theory standpoint, this is called specificity. The more specific the training (and warm-up) is to the activity, the more the adaptations are specific to the demands of competition will be. So dont send em out running straight ahead. Dont send em out to run high-intensity sprints in the game without having some hard runs before the whistle.

Specificity dont forget it. Now, if you will please excuse me, I have to lie down for the second half. My abs and neck are killing me.

Copyright 2003 Donald T. Kirkendall

Donald Kirkendall, Ph.D., is an exercise physiologist on the faculty in the Department of Orthopaedics at the University of North Carolina. He is a Fellow in the American College of Sports Medicine. He has coached soccer for ages U10 through college, and is on the USSF Medical Advisory Committee. He's edited seven books in exercise science and sports medicine, and has published numerous articles on soccer and sports sciences.

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