New season, same old story
The Premier League resumes this weekend but will its players be match fit in time?
Published 09/08/2010 | 05:00
The months of July and August signal that the holiday season is over for soccer and rugby players as they report for pre-season duty. Every house is built upon a foundation, as are your performances, so pre-season training has a crucial role to play.
The first week of pre-season normally involves a series of tests for the players to find out if they looked after themselves during the summer. They should be retested at the end of this period to make sure players are match fit.
Pre-season gives a team an opportunity to establish a work ethic to take into the long months ahead, and builds the fundamentals of strength, endurance, flexibility and recovery so that you can have a higher intensity output during games.
Soccer squads are leaving heavy carbon footprints as they traverse the globe for lucrative friendlies. Gone are the heady summer evenings when top-flight English clubs would warm-up for the new campaign with countless visits to local, lower league sides. Nowadays, pre-season -- like everything else in the Premier League -- is big business and none of the top clubs remained on UK shores this summer.
Hull City, Tottenham and West Ham have taken part in the Premier League Asia Cup in Beijing. Man United, Celtic and Chelsea toured the US, making between £3m-£5m in appearance money alone.
This is all a far cry from how things used to be. When I was 17 I spent the summer training at The Cliff, Man Utd's then training ground.
Sessions included a 12-minute continuous run to build an aerobic base. But soccer does not require an aerobic base and these runs cannot be sustained at the levels of intensity that a game is played at.
Sprint coach Charlie Francis famously coined the term "train slow, be slow". Running long distances is completely different to sprinting short distances -- they are two different energy systems.
During a 90-minute match, a player will run over six miles at an average intensity of 80pc of their maximal heart rate. So while soccer players may cover great distances throughout a match, the energy demands utilise the anaerobic -- without oxygen -- system instead of the aerobic energy systems.
Although varying degrees of aerobic conditioning are required in soccer, a high level of aerobic fitness can actually reduce a player's ability to perform high-intensity, intermittent activities such as those required by soccer.
When I was there, the fitness coaches at Man Utd lacked the knowledge to manipulate exercise variables such as repetitions, sets, tempo and rest periods to net body composition changes that could have either built muscle on a young player like myself or burnt fat on an older player like Clayton Blackmore.
Using aerobic training to lose weight is a mistake that many coaches and gym goers still make today. Since most soccer players play all year round, extended periods of endurance training can put more stress on their already over-burdened joints, as running increases the forces on the joints by at least 10 times its weight.
Aerobic training in its nature is catabolic, which means that it eats the muscle that stabilises joints. That is why you don't see many players weighing 90kg or more.
With all the sprinting, decelerating and changing direction, muscles get weaker and longer. These imbalances can reduce the stability of the knee and lead to repetitive strain injuries or incidents of anterior cruciate ligament, as the hip and knee joints have to absorb more pressure because the muscles are too weak to do their jobs.
As time passes, clubs are starting to see the light in their training methods. Man United manager Alex Ferguson moved to a new training facility in Carrington as the Cliff had become too open to the press and the public for him to train his first-team players.
More recently, the manager has indicated that they are taking a different approach to training and players no longer run more than 200 metres continuously.
But the image of Roy Keane, one of Ireland's greatest footballers, isn't far from my mind. He clearly demonstrated how weak soccer players are in his video 'As I See It', where he struggled to perform two chin-ups!
More recently, footage of Man Utd players doing push-ups on a Swiss ball prove that things still have a long way to go.
As time progresses and clubs expand, managers and shareholders must learn that all their investments in paying top wages will not yield a return if the players are injured or have been conditioned incorrectly.
If you are serious about your season, you need to get serious about your pre-season. Seek a conditioning coach and work smart to prepare your body for the challenges that lie ahead.