Elite soccer players are fitter, faster, and stronger than ever before. This has facilitated the evolution of an exciting modern game that is being played at higher speeds with more dense periods of high-intensity efforts. To win the game, teams apply more pressure, pressing high in the field more frequently and re-pressing at a higher intensity, co-ordinating more frequent instances of multi-player repeated sprinting efforts to support the most decisive moments of match play and forcing turnovers in possession. No playing position is lagging behind these trends. The already highly demanding wide positions are becoming even more intense, and the central defenders and goalkeepers are also contributing more. Taken together, players are covering more distance at high speeds and executing a higher number of passes, kicks, and tactical manoeuvres (Nassis et al., 2020). Players themselves recognise these trends and are utilising the vast resources they have at their disposal to improve their physical qualities to support their tactical role in the team.
No more prevalent is this than across our social media platforms, where we are now overloaded with video montages of some of the world’s best ‘getting to work’ early in the off-season in order to sharpen their tools before returning to their clubs to prepare for the competitive season ahead. The practises of high-performance practitioners now have a global audience as the training drills of the world’s most talented stars are being shared for all to see. The plethora of resources available online has meant performance coaches have the potential to be educated on a vast array of athletic performance enhancing topics, and no more does this statement hold true currently than for the topic of speed development in a team sport setting. The game is getting faster, and so players need to get faster, right? Do coaches and player’s perceptions of what they need line up with the reality of what they really need to perform in the modern game? Indeed, ‘speed is the tide that lifts all ships’; however, there are other key athletic qualities underpinning a soccer player’s high-intensity movement profile that need equal attention. In this current blog post, I will highlight the multi-component needs for conditioning soccer players and offer readers my perspective on how to develop high-intensity locomotor qualities that are essential to thrive in the modern game.
“Indeed, ‘speed is the tide that lifts all ships’; however, there are other key athletic qualities underpinning a soccer player’s high-intensity movement profile that need equal attention.”mcburnie (2023)
Providing Objective Context to Programming Decisions
Speed development practise in soccer has welcomingly introduced track and field coaching methods and athletes may now be routinely exposed to ‘sprint mechanics’, linear speed-oriented drills, such as a-skips, b-skips, dribble bleeds, and wicket runs. Further still, in the quest further enhance their speed qualities, players may independently search for individual coaching outside of their club’s training environment. However, these approaches can lack context, and may do athletes more harm than good, if communication is poor and basic training principles are ignored (i.e., progressive overload / stress-adaptation response / fitness-fatigue). Players who complete this type of work away from their own club may be performing work that they are unaccustomed to. There may be no appreciation for how these intensified speed-focused training blocks correspond with a players typical loading patterns at the acute and chronic level. Ultimately, these decisions should start and end with the game, and quantifiable performance data can guide practitioners and allow training strategies to be applied more objectively and in line with an individual’s needs and avoiding spikes in sprint training volume. Better informed training decisions need to be made and questions need to be asked, such as what are a player’s average and peak game demands, what is the distribution of sprinting volume and speed throughout a week, and how is sprinting exposure accumulated over different rolling periods?
What is the Distribution of Sprinting Volume and Speed Throughout a Week?
How is Sprinting Exposure Accumulated Over Different Rolling Periods?
“Focusing on the neural element of speed alone will undoubtedly under-prepare the athlete for the demands of competition.”mcburnie (2023)
Soccer Players are Repeated-Sprint Athletes
Soccer players are not 100-metre sprinters. Instead, they require the ability to perform maximal or near-maximal bouts of multi-directional activity, often doing so repeatedly with incomplete recovery. The peak physical periods in a match play are often followed by the lowest levels of high-intensity activity (Schimpchen et al., 2021) and these outputs can diminish throughout the duration of the game (Bradley & Noakes, 2013). Subsequently, while the anaerobic system is responsible for providing the immediate energy to drive high-intensity movement, the role of the aerobic system requirements cannot be understated for the soccer player, as this serves as the foundation for substrate recovery between bouts of activity and the maintenance of a low fatigue index. Clearly, there is a need for soccer players to be conditioned as repeated-sprint athletes who possess highly functioning metabolic (e.g. oxidative capacity, phosphocreatine recovery, and H+ buffering) and neural (e.g. muscle activation and recruitment strategies) capabilities (Bishop et al., 2011) to endure performance at the highest level in match play. As such, repeated-sprint ability (RSA) is a multifactorial fitness component involving both the aerobic and anaerobic metabolism, as well as neural factors (Girard et al., 2011). This is fundamental in the development of training methods for the soccer player, as focusing on the neural element of speed alone will undoubtedly under-prepare the athlete for the demands of competition. Granted, a player may return with a new ‘top speed’ in a game, but how important is that one-off effort if they are not able to repeatedly perform high-quality efforts throughout the duration of a 90-minute match? Further still, soccer players require the durability to sustain high-level sprinting performance while retaining technical integrity, and this movement quality may be compromised if performed under a highly fatigued state.
Training Repeated-Sprint Ability
There is no one type of training that can be recommended to maximise RSA and a variety of training methods have been explored both empirically and practically (Bishop et al., 2011). That said, we believe the best approach to improving RSA is the implementation of a concurrent method, implementing different forms of training with varying degrees of emphasis, thus maximising the potency of the desired training effect. This concept has been discussed previously in relation to multi-directional speed and aims to achieve specific areas of biomechanical and physiological overload in isolation, rather than targeting every component within the same exercise. The tactical periodisation model commonly adopted in soccer means that physical biases can be emphasised through manipulation of technical drill parameters during training week. More specifically, soccer-specific drills may be grouped into key physical training themes (Figure 3) to elicit the desired adaptations across the energy system continuum. However, it has been well documented that soccer-specific drills alone may not provide the desired stimuli to achieve physical overload (Clemente, 2020). Therefore, in our athletic development work, it is the role of performance practitioners to push the boundaries of these physical biases towards a concentrated stimulus that elicits optimal adaptation (Figure 4). Rightly so, high-quality speed work in its purest form is a vital component of this practise, yet this needs to be considered within the overarching context of the elite soccer players training programme and with consideration for the need to condition soccer players as repeated-sprint athletes.
“The greatest returns in RSA will likely come from a multi-component training model that supplements speed exposure, high intensity interval running, and repeated sprint work into the technical-tactical training programme.”mcburnie (2023)
The technical-tactical demands of performance in soccer means that players will complete a high proportion of their weekly training distribution on short-effort, technical, and tactical drills and small-sided games, which are often performed at sub-maximal intensities. Therefore, a challenge practitioners will face is how to fit focused, high-intensity training into an already heavy training load. The micro-dosing concept thus involves applying relatively frequent, small doses of high-quality load that has a cumulative or compounding effect over time to maintain or develop a specific fitness quality / physical capacity (i.e., top-ups or bolt-ons). This volume should be accounted for and integrated within a weekly training cycle. Understanding an athlete’s typical training distribution (Figure 1) can allow reference values to be targeted, in line with an individual’s norms, and ultimately, ensuring that unobtrusive doses of high-intensity training exposure are present in training and that a player’s high-intensity movement profile is being continually developed.
As such, the greatest returns in RSA will likely come from a multi-component training model that supplements speed exposure, high intensity interval running, and repeated sprint work into the technical-tactical training programme. Through this method, both generic and soccer-specific training drills can be utilised along the energy system continuum, and in essence, raising the ceiling of anaerobic performance potential, whilst also developing a larger aerobic base for the maintenance of repeated bouts of high-intensity activity. In applying more objectivity to these concepts, the use of volume, intensity, and speed are fundamental training principles that can support a prescriptive framework. If we were to drill into attempts to objectively measure sprinting exposure, for example, during a full 90-min match, a wide midfielder may cover a total sprinting distance volume of 150 m (Di-Salvo et al., 2010). In contrast, the 1-minute peak demand of sprinting distance in a game can demonstrate a fourfold higher locomotive requirement than the 90-min average match intensity (Riboli et al., 2021; Figure 5). Finally, the maximum sprinting speed a player reaches in a game can also be tracked and used to inform whether players are adequately being exposed to maximum velocity scenarios.
Knowing an individual’s typical match output, practitioners can aim to reverse-engineer the design of training content at the micro- and meso-level. Having a clear picture of this allows training exposure to high-intensity work to be shaped around the individual’s acute and chronic loading requirements. From a volume and speed perspective, this is now a common practise in elite clubs as they seek to manage the sprinting distances and maximum velocity exposures of their athletes; however, how this is applied to the intensity aspect is perhaps less considered. Peak game demands analyses may show us that the average and maximum per 90-minute values of sprinting intensity may grossly underestimate the peak periods of match play when broken down into specific epochs (Figure 5). This is crucial to consider in the design of training drills that typically correspond to workload-duration relationships. As mentioned previously, as performance practitioners, the aims of our training should be to achieve physical overload through the delivery of concentrated, high-quality physical stimuli and to ensure that athletes are prepared for the peak (i.e., worst-case demands) of the sport, not just the average intensities over an entire game. A more granular understanding of the most demanding passages of match play can provide a more precise reference framework for managing the intensity of our contextualised conditioning drills, of which can be selected based on the desired physical bias (Figure 3).
Elite soccer players are becoming fitter and faster in order to support their increasingly demanding roles within the team. Soccer players are not merely 100-m sprint athletes, so speed qualities need to be developed within the context of supporting a player’s multi-directional, high-intensity movement profile. To summarise:
- Although speed training is vital, soccer players are repeated-sprint athletes who also require conditioning exposure across the energy system continuum.
- To achieve optimal adaptation, it is important to utilise a method that is centred around targeting key physical biases, rather than training every component simultaneously and risking a ‘dilution’ of the desired training effect.
- It is important to incorporate a multi-component training model that supplements speed exposure, high intensity interval running, and repeated sprint work into the technical-tactical training programme.
- Volume, intensity, and speed are fundamental training principles that can support a prescriptive training framework. Quantification of these elements can be used as references for training prescription depending on the desired physical overload.
- Understanding an athlete’s typical training distribution can allow reference values to be targeted, in line with an individual’s norms, ultimately ensuring that these qualities are continually developed throughout a training cycle and dosed appropriately.
Bishop, D., Girard, O., & Mendez-Villanueva, A. (2011). Repeated-Sprint Ability — Part II. Sports Medicine, 41(9), 741–756. https://doi.org/10.2165/11590560-000000000-00000
Bradley, P. S., & Noakes, T. D. (2013). Match running performance fluctuations in elite soccer: Indicative of fatigue, pacing or situational influences? Journal of Sports Sciences, 31(15), 1627–1638. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2013.796062
Clemente, F. (2020). The threats of small-sided soccer games: A discussion about their differences with the match external load demands and their variability levels. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 42(3), 100–105. https://doi.org/10.1519/SSC.0000000000000526
Di-Salvo, V., Baron, R., González-Haro, C., Gormasz, C., Pigozzi, F., & Bachl, N. (2010). Sprinting analysis of elite soccer players during European Champions League and UEFA Cup matches. Journal of Sports Sciences, 28(14), 1489–1494. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2010.521166
Girard, O., Mendez-Villanueva, A., & Bishop, D. (2011). Repeated-Sprint Ability — Part I. Sports Medicine, 41(8), 673–694. https://doi.org/10.2165/11590550-000000000-00000
Nassis, G. P., Massey, A., Jacobsen, P., Brito, J., Randers, M. B., Castagna, C., Mohr, M., & Krustrup, P. (2020). Elite football of 2030 will not be the same as that of 2020: Preparing players, coaches, and support staff for the evolution. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 30(6), 962–964. https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.13681
Riboli, A., Semeria, M., Coratella, G., & Esposito, F. (2021). Effect of formation, ball in play and ball possession on peak demands in elite soccer. Biology of Sport, 38(2), 195–205. https://doi.org/10.5114/biolsport.2020.98450
Schimpchen, J., Gopaladesikan, S., & Meyer, T. (2021). The intermittent nature of player physical output in professional football matches: An analysis of sequences of peak intensity and associated fatigue responses. European Journal of Sport Science, 21(6), 793–802. https://doi.org/10.1080/17461391.2020.1776400
Walker, G. J., & Hawkins, R. (2018). Structuring a program in elite professional soccer. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 40(3), 72–82. https://doi.org/10.1519/SSC.0000000000000345