By Marc Bernier, MPT CSCS
The arrival of summer signifies the closest thing to an “off-season” for those involved in the sport of soccer (players and parents alike), especially here in the southeastern part of the country. Milder winter temperatures allow earlier resumption of training for the spring season, and in conjunction with access to indoor soccer facilities, essentially eliminates any significant winter break. Summer brings family vacations and soaring temperatures, which necessitate a hiatus from participation in formal leagues and games. Questions always arise this time of year as to how a soccer athlete should train during the months of June, July and August, or if they should even train at all. In my experience, most players fall at either end of the spectrum: those that do not perform any training, and those that never stop training. Unfortunately, both of these approaches are less than ideal, having the potential to result in performance deficiencies or even injuries during the fall season. The early summer months should provide an opportunity for the player’s body to recuperate from the weekly high intensity training performed during the season; this is even more applicable to those athletes that play multiple sports. Without this recovery phase, the body can begin to break down physically once the fall season commences resulting in deconditioning, or in overuse injuries such as tendonitis. Either case will result in a decreased ability to perform at optimal levels. It has been suggested by some that evidence of this theory can be seen at last year’s World Cup Finals in Korea and Japan. Many of the typical powerhouse teams from across the world (Italy, Argentina, France, and England) did not play at the performance levels expected of them. One hypothesis for this occurrence is the incredibly demanding schedule that players in the top European leagues (English Premier League; Serie A; La Liga; Bundesliga) must compete in. In addition to the regular season, players in those leagues must also compete in international friendlies and qualifying matches with their respective national teams. This essentially makes soccer a year-round sport that is lacking in any significant recovery training phase. As a result, all of those teams suffered early exits from the World Cup. Additionally, one of the world’s top players, Zinedine Zidane of France essentially missed the entire tournament with a chronic quadriceps injury that may have been exacerbated by the playing schedule. Conversely, teams such as the United States and Korea displayed superior conditioning levels which translated into success on the field. Players on those national teams typically played less matches during the year and were able to participate in appropriate conditioning regiments that were scientifically based, not based on a grueling competition schedule.
The above scenario illustrates the need for some “down time” from the rigors of formal training; however, this does not mean that all form of training can cease during these off-season months. Players that remain idle during summer will be faced with several difficulties once the fall season starts. The most obvious will be a lack of fitness. Being in a deconditioned state will result in premature fatigue during training sessions and matches, significantly reducing the capability for optimal performance. As a result, the player must perform extra conditioning work in order to catch up to his/her teammates. The most problematic end result of either poor fitness or a poorly constructed off-season training program is injury to the lower extremities, usually in the form of shin splints or tendonitis. If the body is not trained properly, it will not be able to handle the stresses placed on it once soccer-specific training begins during the pre-season.
I like to divide the off-season summer conditioning program into 3 phases: 1. Cross Training Phase; 2. Aerobic Base Phase; 3. Dynamic Soccer Phase.
The goal of the cross training phase is to allow the body to recuperate from the rigors of the season. During this phase (which starts immediately after the end of the spring season), the athlete attempts to maintain a base level of fitness by participating in activities that lightly challenge the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal system, yet are not soccer-specific. Examples of these activities include lap swimming, biking and/or mountain biking, pick-up basketball games, rollerblading, tennis, racquetball, etc. These alternative forms of exercise provide both a physical and mental break from the game of soccer and should be enjoyable for the athlete. Additionally, I always recommend that players perform 20 – 30 minutes of ball work 3 days a week to maintain and improve ball skills. This work can consist of juggling and Coerver drills.
The goal of the Aerobic Base Phase is to begin preparing the body for the upcoming pre-season, and should begin 5 weeks before the start of formal team training. Previously published articles have discussed the importance of emphasizing sprint training and recovery from sprints for soccer (anaerobic training); however, the soccer athlete must have a good aerobic base conditioning level to allow him/her to compete at optimal levels late in matches. Training in this phase consists of submaximal effort that lasts at least 30-45 minutes in duration and should be performed 4 days per week for 2 weeks. I like to recommend that 3 sessions consist of long distance running and 1 session of stationary bicycling or on a stairstepper at a light – moderate intensity.
After the 3 week Aerobic Base Phase, a 3 week phase of soccer-specific conditioning should be performed with emphasis on sprint training and soccer agility training. Sessions during this phase should be high intensity and require near maximal effort, and also should be done 4 days per week. Sprints of varying distances and planes of motion (forward, backward, laterals, combinations) should be included in the drills, with the integration of mini-hurdles and agility ladders to incorporate footwork as well (see previous articles on soccer pattern running and soccer-specific training). Emphasis on proper sprint mechanics is also important, as is improving the athlete’s dynamic flexibility.
During all phases, I highly recommend that players perform the training in running shoes and not cleats or soccer flats. Running shoes provide the best support for the foot and will minimize the likelihood of overuse injury.
If performed properly, the above program should provide a safe and effective manner for preparing athletes for the upcoming season in shape and injury free, in addition to allowing for recuperation from the previous spring season.
Marc Bernier is a senior physical therapist and strength and conditioning specialist at the HEALTHSOUTH Sports Medicine at Rehabilitation Center in Birmingham, AL. He is also the Director of HEALTHSOUTH Soccer International; Sports Medicine Consultant for the Galatasaray Football (Soccer) Club (2000 UEFA Cup Champions); and Sports Medicine and Training Consultant for Soccer Jr. Magazine. He can be contacted for questions or comments at 205-930-4719 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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