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Methods of Conditioning

Updated: Oct 5, 2021

In the previous blog, we discussed the predominant energy systems (conditioning) involved in soccer: aerobic and alactic anaerobic. Now that we have an understanding of the energy used in a game of soccer, we need to learn the methods to improve conditioning.

For the purposes of this discussion, we will limit the methods to: Tempo Runs, Repeated Sprint Ability, and High-Intensity Interval Training. Also, we will purposely avoid small-sided, full-sided, and conditioning with the ball, as this type of training should fall under the domain of the team’s coach. However, the larger the pitch and greater number of players participating, the greater demand placed on the aerobic system. The smaller the pitch and fewer players participating will place a greater demand on the anaerobic system. For those wanting to delve into this is greater detail, there are a number of research studies done by Hoff, Wisloff, and Helgerud.

Tempo Runs:

A Tempo Run is done at an intensity or speed greater than a jog, but less intense or slower than a sprint. The distance can range from the width of a soccer field (65 yds to 75 yds) to the length of the field (100 yds to 120 yds). As an example: a Tempo Run of 100 yds should be completed in 18 to 20 seconds by a male (16 to 22 years old) and 20 to 22 seconds by a female of the same age range. The recovery time between each repetition would be either the distance of the width of the field; 35 to 45s; or, the time it takes for the heart rate (HR) to recover to 120 – 130 bpm. The intensity of the run should be such that HR stays in a range of 130 – 160 bpm. This range would be considered Cardiac Output Training (increasing the size of the left ventricle of the heart). An increase in the left ventricle of the heart allows it to pump more oxygenated blood to the muscles. The full expansion/contraction of the heart will not occur if intensity is greater than 160 bpm for a long duration. Therefore, it is best to allow a longer recovery between Tempo Runs, if one is not using a HR monitor.

Initially, distance covered should be 1000 to 1200 yards or 10 to 12, 100 yard runs. To minimize the risk of an over-use injury, particularly at the beginning of the season, week to week distance should not increase by more than 20% to 25%. By weeks three and four, total distance should be approaching 1800 to 2000 yards.

One of the major benefits of Tempo Runs versus a traditional roadwork run (3 to 4 miles) is running mechanics. A Tempo Run mimics the sprinting mechanics more than a jog, helping to strengthen and improve the mobility of the muscles of the hip joint. The improvement of these qualities also helps lessen the likelihood of an early season soft-tissue injury, such as a quad/hip flexor, adductor (groin), and/or hamstring strain/pull.

Repeated Sprint Ability:

RSA challenges the other end of the conditioning continuum, both from an energy system perspective and intensity level. Essentially, RSA is just what the name implies. It is the ability to cover as much ground in the shortest period of time during multiple bouts without a significant decrement in speed. Ultimately, the team with the fastest, most explosive athletes from start to finish will have the best chance of success, assuming technical/tactical qualities are similar.

Since RSA training is much more intense than Tempo Runs, a progression is advised. Initially, it is best to incorporate a “flying” start, instead of a “dead” start to help minimize soft-tissue injuries. The first few sessions might include a 30 yard Fly In and a 30 yard sprint with a 60 second recovery for a set of six. The following weeks the sprints get shorter, as does the fly in and recovery, but the reps increase.

Once the athletes build up a tolerance to these intensities, a fly in is no longer required. So a session might include a 30 yard sprint with 20 seconds recovery for a set of six. A total of three sets would comprise the workout with 3 minutes passive recovery between sets. Since soccer involves many changes of direction, incorporating shuttles will make the training more realistic and challenge the athletes. A 30 yard shuttle (15 yards out and back) is much more challenging than a straight 30 due to the deceleration/acceleration requirement.

One of the best ways to improve speed is to sprint. RSA training can help accomplish this. However, this type of training does take a toll on the central nervous system (as does HIIT), so it should not be over-done. Tempo Runs are still very useful as they improve the aerobic system, allowing the anaerobic system to recover quicker.

High-Intensity Interval Training:

HIIT is an activity longer in duration than a RSA activity, but at a slightly lower intensity (90% of maximum effort). A HIIT activity could range from 15s to 90s, though most will fall within the 15s to 30s range. A 150 yd shuttle (135 meters) using a 25 yd distance per shuttle will be more intense than a 50 yd distance per shuttle due to the more frequent change of directions. The pace should be in the 27s to 30s range or 5m/s to 4.5m/s, respectively. If you are doing multiple 150 yd shuttles, the recovery time between bouts should be 30s to 60s.

HIIT will challenge the lactate anaerobic energy system, also known as the glycolytic anaerobic system, as glycogen is the primary source of fuel. Conditioning programs that reply too heavily on this system have some drawbacks. It is very taxing on the body due to some biochemical reactions in muscle and blood (change in pH and increase in Hydrogen ions). The training effect of this type of activity peaks after 3 to 5 weeks. And lastly, an over-reliance on this system actually can inhibit the use of glycogen.

Therefore, while HIIT should be included in a well-balanced conditioning program to challenge the glycolytic anaerobic system, it should be used sparingly relative to Tempo Runs and RSA as soccer requires a well-developed aerobic and alactic anaerobic system.

Special thanks to Dave Tenney, Joel Jamieson, Chris West, Dan Baker, and Michael Boyle for sharing their thoughts.

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