Increasing emphasis is being placed on the physical performance and preparation of Premiership players, wsith most clubs utilising the expertise of physiologists and sport scientists in order to gain a winning edge. This has led to an increase in published physiological research on association football. The methods used to monitor player performance include hand notation, tape recorded commentary, cine film analysis, computer-aided analysis and a combination of all of these techniques. Although there are issues relating to the reliability and validity of these data collection methods, the findings have produced fairly standard data related to the physiological requirements of the game (Tumilty 1993).
Shephard (1999) summarised the research findings related to work rate in elite male players as that, covering a distance of 8 – 12 km per match, the aerobic energy system was utilised for the majority of activities (walking, jogging and sub maximal running), but this was interspersed with short burts of high intensity work which relied on anaerobic energy systems. During a match a player typically receives and makes about 30 passes.
Drust et al (1998) showed the following percentages of total work:
- Walking 24%
- Jogging 37%
- Cruising 20%
- Sprinting 11%
- Utility 7%
The intermittent nature of the game has been shown to increase the energy requirement, as have the activities of stopping, turning, jumping and tackling (Reilly 1997). Research by Bangsbo (1994) showed that differences in player positions, and therefore in on-field tasks, have an effect on the physiological requirements of players. Midfield players cover the greatest distance and require an aerobic profile, with an ability to sustain effort at close to their aerobic threshold (the maximum intensity before work becomes anaerobic).
Shephard (1999) observed a heart rate range of between 155 – 170 bpm during play. However, the value of heart rate as an indicator of exercise intensity may be inflated in the competitive environment by emotional stress, intermittent exercise, isometric contractions and thermal stress (Tumilty 1993). Bangsbo (1994) reports that although heart rate correlates well with maximal oxygen uptake during steady state work, it may not be totally accurate during intermittent exercise.
Bangsbo (1994) observed average oxygen consumption of around 70% of maximal oxygen consumption during matchplay. However, Ogushi et al (1993) reports practical problems (playing association football with a large ‘Douglas bag’ that collects exhaled air) which make it difficult to measure oxygen consumption during competition. Furthermore, these findings have poor external validity. Research by Apor (1988) using a cycle ergometer showed maximal oxygen uptake values of 60 – 70 millilitres per kilogram per minute in elite players, but this method may underestimate a player’s potential on field performance because of its intermittent nature.
Di Salvo and Pigozzi (1998) evaluated the effectiveness of an eight month individualised training program for association football players based upon their position in the team. The reasoning behind such a program was the findings of previous research such as Ekblom (1986), that demonstrated a difference in the physiological requirements of players who played in different positions. Using a control group of same position players they demonstrated an improvement in a range of physical tests that was significantly better than the control group who continued to use the group training approach. However, because of the age of the subjects (17 years) it could be argued that the improvements were caused by maturation due to physical development. The external validity of this study is limited somewhat by the difficulties a coach would have in implementing such a program to a professional squad. It may be very impractical to implement and it may have a detrimental effect on team spirit if the players are not training as a group. For example, one player may think he is being asked to do more training than another and feel that this is an injustice.
A more practical approach may be for the whole squad to use a training program that roughly mirrors the activities undertaken during matches. Nicholas et al (1999) attempted to determine the test-retest reliability of an exercise program that simulates the activity pattern of a match. This test was termed the Loughborough Intermittent Shuttle Test (LIST). The study was very well controlled and demonstrated the LIST to exhibit good reproducibility. An array of physiological measuremens were observed (including perceived exertion, blood glucose levels, blood lactate and changes in plasma volume and body mass) and all found to be similar to the responses reported during matches. The total distance covered in the two parts of the LIST was 12.4 km, covered at various speeds as is observed during matches. The test is fairly easy to administer and could be done as a group. It is quantifiable and specific to association football. It could certainly be used by by squads in order to maintain aerobic and anaerobic energy systems.
The one drawback with the LIST described by Nicholas et al (1999) is that it doesn’t involve any ball work, which is central to the game of association football. It is possible that this could be addressed by the use of small sided practice games in training. Allen et al evaluated the physical and physiological demands of 5 a-side and 11 a-side matches. They found that the ratio of high intensity to moderate/low intensity work, and the corresponding heart rate values, were significantly higher in the 5 a-side games. However, the authors acknowledge the fact only four subjects were observed and this limits the credibility of the study.
One practice that is already established in association football is periodisation. Periodisation was first described in the literature by Mateyev (1972). This technique involves dividing training periods of up to a year (the macroycle) into smaller periods (mesocycles) which are divided further into microcycles. This approach is designed to prevent overtraining and result in a peak in performance at the time of competition (Wathan, 1994). Within association football the macrocylce lasts between July of one year to the following May. This is divided into two major mesocycles. The first is a rebuilding mesocycle from July to August known as pre-season training and is designed to prepare the players for the physical demands of the season. The second mesocycle is the in-season competition phase, where the emphasis is on maintenance of fitness levels. This mesocycle is sub-divided into microcycles that comprise of the week long periods in between matches. Typically these comprise of:
- Monday – small sided game
- Tuesday – aerobic training session
- Wednesday – REST
- Thursday -technical tactical session / anaerobic speed endurance
- Friday – small sided game / tactical session
- Saturday – Match
- Sunday – recovery session
However, some weeks, due to mid-week matches, it is not possible to stick to this routine and more rest days are given to recuperate from the exertion of the match. Although there is much empirical evidence of the benefits of periodisation it is an area that needs considerably more research (McCardle Katch nd Katch (1996).
Despite the growth of sport science within association football, and the increasing body of research on the physiological demands of association football, the training methods employed are not always based on a sound physiological basis. In England professional football still tends to be based upon traditional methods that are followed by coaches “because that’s what I did when I was a player”. This is partly due to a culture of hire and fire within coaching personnel that breeds fear and conservatism. Also, players are often resistant to change and base a lot of their preparation on superstition – any sport scientist who advocates a change to this routine, even if it is based on sound scientific evidence, runs the risk of being blamed by the player for an adverse effect on performance. The psychological aspect of association football should not be discounted and a manager may prefer to have a happy player with a lower aerobic exercise capacity than an unhappy player who is begrudgingly following a scientifically sound program.
Association football is also prone to fads where certain techniques or practices become fashionable. It is quite common for one team to adopt a new regime because it has reportedly been used by another team who have been successful. An example of this is the adoption of the practice of doing a group cool down at the end of each game or training session, which has been introduced to English association football by foreign players and coaches who had experienced this practice in other countries. The cool down is thought to have several physiological benefits which are believed to benefit the player’s recovery but there is little documented evidence to back up these claims (Van Mechelen et al 1993).
In conclusion, it is not possible to formulate a perfect training programme for all individuals because there are too many variables caused by personal and situational differences. However, it is possible to optimise the effects of training by considering the scientific evidence related to the specific physiological demands of association football and applying this to training where possible.
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