Maintenance of Aerobic Fitness During the Competitive Season – It’s Easier Than You Think
The 2016 outdoor competitive soccer season has begun, and teams all over Ontario are now competing in league and tournament play. Under most traditional schedules, this means players will play a minimum of one, and hopefully a maximum of two competitive matches per week.
If coaches have done a good job planning their training during pre-season, their players should be prepared with a high level of aerobic fitness to start the season.
In a good periodization plan, towards the end of the pre-season and the start of the season, much of the physical training done should be focused on anaerobic fitness (speed, repeated sprinting, and power training) as opposed to aerobic fitness.
One common problem that may occur during the season, however, is that players’ aerobic fitness will decrease, especially if they are not playing full matches (90+ minutes) and/or are playing in certain positions where they do not run as much at high intensities (for example, centre back).
If some type of aerobic maintenance training is not performed during the competitive season, players can lose up to 15% of their aerobic fitness level, which in many cases can amount to all of the improvement in aerobic fitness they made during the pre-season (putting them back at “square one” aerobically). Compounding this problem is that, while it only takes 7-10 days to start decreasing aerobic fitness levels, it can take between 3-5 weeks to regain them.
Countering and preventing this decline in aerobic fitness requires, as mentioned above, training designed to maintain aerobic fitness. So what is the best way to accomplish this maintenance training and prevent the decrease in performance that will accompany a loss in aerobic fitness?
Ideally, aerobic maintenance training should take the form of a small-sided game. Research into the intensity and loading of training during small-sided games has indicated that the average heart rates and relative amounts of high intensity running are very proportional to those achieved during full 90+ minute matches.
The advantage of using small-sided games, however, is that a similar stimulus to the aerobic energy system (similar heart rates, and similar relative amounts of high intensity running) can be achieved through a much lower total volume of training. Furthermore, small-sided games allow players to improve and maintain their aerobic fitness while actually playing soccer (as opposed to running workouts) so there is much more specificity to the this type of training.
When I worked as Fitness Coach for the Toronto FC Academy, we used a simple small-sided game of 4 versus 4, once per week with each Academy team, as an aerobic fitness maintenance session. Although the basic premise of the exercise is very simple (4 players versus 4 players, on a small field with small goals), the following details are important to consider in order to ensure the appropriate intensity and volume of the training:
Use a playing area of 30 meters x 20 meters
Use small goals with a net to stop the ball if/when a goal is scored
Place balls around the perimeter of the field so that if a ball goes out of play, another ball can immediately be played back in
Play 4 repetitions of 4 minutes, and rest for 3 minutes between each repetition
Conditions such as limiting the number of touches, or forcing all players to be over the ½ line in order for a goal to be scored, can be used to increase the intensity if needed
Small sided 4 versus 4 games like the one described above have been shown in a recent study by Bangsbo et al. (2006) to elicit significant improvements in soccer players’ aerobic capacity after 4 weeks of training, with only 2 training sessions per week.
Of course, because this session involves playing soccer rather than just running, players will experience all of the other benefits from a 4 versus 4 game, including more touches on the ball (which can improve technique); more accelerations and decelerations (to improve agility and leg strength); more interactions with teammates (which can improve ability to combine and connect passes); and more interaction with opponents (which can improve individual and group defending abilities).
Richard Bucciarelli is the Owner and President of Soccer Fitness Inc., a soccer-specific strength and conditioning company in Toronto. He is a regular contributor to icoachsoccer.com. For more information about Richard and Soccer Fitness Inc., visit www.soccerfitness.ca.