Newsflash: as hard as you think you’re pushing your athletes, you’re not.
Sorry to sound pessimistic right off the bat, but it’s true.
Most conditioning drills fail to get players out of their comfort zones. Most conditioning drills don’t improve their lactate thresholds. Most conditioning drills don’t prepare players for the demands of a 90 minute match. Most conditioning drills are so easy they can be performed by Kendall Jenner and Kim Kardashian.
I repeat: you’re not pushing your athletes enough.
Before I dive in and clarify how to condition soccer players, here’s a warning: this article will be a dissertation.
When my Twitter followers asked me to write a blog on conditioning for soccer, I don’t think they realized I’d be spending a Saturday afternoon from 3-6pm spitting out 2,000+ words of content.
First off, I’m aware I have no life.
Second off, I have my shots of espresso, don’t worry.
Third, I love you guys.
Lastly, let’s freaking do this.
How To Condition Soccer Players
Let me ask you this: what do you do for conditioning? No, really…what do you do?
If you said, “the good-old-jog-laps-around-the-field”…
You’re a moron.
Now this isn’t to say you’re wrong for having your players jog laps, but are you making effective use of your limited time with them?
Soccer players cover on average 7 miles of running per game, but somewhere in there, are a series of high intensity actions that can decide a game.
A fast breakaway. A counterattack. A 1v1 scenario. A diagonal run at maximal speed.
The majority of the time, goals are scored by not jogging actions, but rather, high speed running actions. Under immense fatigue.
Do you even watch the game, bro?
Admittedly, I’m fascinated every Sunday I watch the English Premiere League. Seeing the plethora of high intensity movements that turn into magical game-winning plays reminds me of why soccer is so exhilarating.
With that said, the most elite players can push past fatigue in the final minutes and still be running full speed toward goal to rocket a bomb of a shot in the back of the net.
That’s high performance soccer, folks.
Okay, okay: Here’s How to Condition Soccer Players
So how do we prepare players for the full 90 minute match? After all, it’s filled with maximal speed running, decelerating and accelerating, and making spontaneous decisions under pressure.
There’s plenty to be said for the tremendous amount of physical load, but cognitive load is just as paramount when it comes to designing conditioning programs. More on this later.
Personally, I love showing new clients how out of shape they are. And I may or may not have an evil grin on my face.
I get it: I sound mean. But yo. Kids need to know how hard they should be working to prepare for high performance. And most of the kids coming to me want to play in college and beyond. They’re here to get results, not meander around DisneyWorld and go through the motions.
And you know what’s funny? Every time I get new soccer athletes I ask, “how much endurance do you guys have?”
Their response: “a lot.”
Then, we run a 300-yard shuttle and they’re barely making sub-65 seconds.
Or, we begin 20-30 seconds of maximal speed running and they already feel their hearts exploding out of their chests.
Or, we do our extensive dynamic warm-up, and they’re puking out the back door to the facility.
Or, we do an aerobic ladder primer for 10 minutes and they’re already gassed.
It’s sad. Most soccer players nowadays, especially youth soccer players (ages 14 and up), don’t know how to push past physical, lung burning discomfort. In other words, they don’t know how to put themselves in an environment that is a higher intensity than the game.
As a result of this, they’re more out of shape than they think, and unprepared to optimize their game day performance.
With that said, what are you doing to prepare them? Are you putting them in uncomfortable scenarios so they learn how to handle physiological and cognitive adversity?
Just like a diamond, athletes need to undergo duress in order to become resilient and dazzling on the pitch.
The more an athlete can condition at a higher intensity than the game, the more they’ll be prepared to withstand the game demands with ease, as well as not get injured under fatigue.
This Isn’t Rocket Science.
It’s really not.
Most coaches are under the impression players need more aerobic work.
Run more laps.
Tap feet through ladders at half-assed speed.
Run 2 miles.
Jog some more.
Jog laps again.
Sorry not sorry, but this all is as mundane as copying a blank sheet of paper over. And over. And over again.
Don’t do the mundane, especially when it comes to conditioning. Moreover, make the most of your time.
If you’re a soccer performance coach who only see athletes 2-3 times a week, you’re doing your players a service by upping the ante with speed endurance, repeated sprint, and anaerobic conditioning drills, especially without the ball when your players hone precise running mechanics (arm swing, good posture, knee drive, contralateral coordination) – you know, the stuff they aren’t getting at their team practices in a small-sided game setting.
So, how are you filling in the empty bucket?
With that said, let’s dive into some drills you can do to turn your players into cardiovascular beasts:
Sample Drills to Try
If you’re still with me, good. Sorry if those first 900 words were a tease. I promise I’ll hit you with the conditioning drills you can take to
torture condition your players.
Drill # 1: Low Impact Conditioning
What this works: Anaerobic capacity and ability to withstand long-term bouts of high intensity conditioning (85% of HR max +)
How to execute: Perform 5-8 rounds 60 seconds
with 90 second to 2 minute rest.
When to use: I utilize low impact conditioning on the climber when my athletes are in the middle of other sport seasons. I want to be able to elicit a high intensity effect without impacting their joints with decelerations and eccentric load, while still getting their heart rates up.
Drill #2: Anaerobic Conditioning (Repeated High Intensity Work)
What this works: Anaerobic capacity and ability to maintain top speeds under eccentric loading.
How to execute: Perform 60-90 seconds maximal effort (or up to 90-95% of HR max +) and recover for 2-3 minutes or down to 65-70% of HR max.
For more speed endurance: Perform 20-40 seconds maximal effort with a rest 4-5x the amount of work.
When to use: This is one of my favorite off-season drills to build anaerobic capacity. I usually have them perform this drill for 4-10 reps.
Drill #3: Tabata COD
What this works: Change of direction and eccentric load under an anaerobic conditioning effect.
How to execute: Have players work up to 90-95% of HR max or perform a maximal effort for 20 seconds and rest for 10 seconds (6-8 rounds).
When to use: This is one of my favorite pre-season drills because it challenges maximal effort with minimal recovery, and there are plenty changes of direction to prepare them for the demands of the game.
Drill #4: Anaerobic Max Conditioning
What this works: Speed endurance and power production under fatigue (anaerobic lactic power).
How to execute: Have players perform drill for 10-20 seconds to elicit a 95%+ of HR max effect. Have them rest for 4-5x that amount so they can go hard for every set. Perform 10-15 reps.
When to use: The mid to the tail end of off-season (peak weeks).
Drill #5: Technical Anaerobic and Cognitive Loading
What this works: Anaerobic capacity lactic capacity with the ball. The goal is to maintain sharpness on the ball without fatiguing.
How to execute: Perform 60 second bouts and rest for 120-180 seconds. Perform 3-5 sets.
When to use: Pre-season.
One Thing To Keep In Mind: Don’t Always Push Athletes to the Point of Vomit
While a rare few of my players have vomited during my conditioning drills, that’s not the goal. Yes, I like to work my athletes hard, but we’re recovering just as hard.
In other words, good old-fashioned periodization…and common sense.
Sure, there’s a lot to be said for being tough on players, but recovery is just as important so they’re able to maximize high intensity conditioning days. If athletes are going hard 7 days a week, their muscles would be in a constant state of fatigue and their nervous systems in a constant state of stress, which would make all of this counterproductive.
Don’t be stupid. Recover hard.
Sample Recovery Drills to Try:
Drill #5: 360 Diaphragmatic Breathing
And the best part about all of these? You don’t need a fancy, schmancy corrective exercise certification to execute them. As a strength coach for soccer players, you should know these as a default.
It’s important to know why soccer players need thoracic spine mobility (rotational power and shooting), hip mobility (stable knees, agility), ankle mobility (change of direction, knee stability), and 360 degree diaphragmatic breathing (parasympathetic nervous system activation).
Other Random Things To Know About Conditioning
I’m going to put this final portion in bullet point form, now that I’m over 1,500 words and your wife is probably wondering why you’re late for dinner.
Here you are:
1. Ask yourself why you’re doing a drill.
Are you trying to get the heart rate past 90% of a player’s max? Are you training them for longer, high intensity bouts so they don’t get injured in the 80th minute? Are you trying to challenge them mentally? Are you trying to prepare them for the impending zombie apocalypse?
Whatever it is, meticulously plan your conditioning drill to elicit the result you want. You’d be surprised how many coaches line their squad up on the end line to run suicides without their end goal in mind.
2. Fill in the buckets of what a player needs most of.
Does a player need more speed endurance? Does a player need more anaerobic capacity?
Be sure to fill in the buckets and cater to each individual.
3. Do conditioning with and without the ball.
There’s a time and place for conditioning without the ball, especially if you want to hone maximal aerobic speed and pristine running mechanics. But. There’s also a time and place for conditioning with the ball so you can cognitively load your squad to thinking quickly under pressure and fatigue.
A blend of both bodes well for every team, but more ball conditioning would be best during the pre-season.
5. If you are poor and need something else, use RPE (Ratings of Perceived Exertion).
Time-based conditioning is great, but sometimes each player has a vastly different fitness level.
For some, it takes 45 seconds to get up to 90% + of maximum HR, and for others, it takes 60+ seconds to get in the red zone.
Enter: RPE (Ratings of Perceived Exertion), when players gauge on their own how hard they’re working.
Normally, I have players work up to a 9/10 on the RPE scale, which means they’re entering lung burning, rapid heart beating zone. It should feel icky.
Then, I have them recover down to a 5 or 6/10 and begin their run again.
RPE is a last resort if you don’t want to do time-based, or you don’t have access to heart rate monitors. Most players are truthful when it comes to reporting RPE.
6. You’re already doing enough aerobic work
More often than not, the aerobic, long distance, 60-75% of HR max work is already being achieved in team practices. Whether this is from a warm-up, technical drill, or small-sided game, players are spending plenty of time in an aerobic state.
So this begs the question, what drills can we program to achieve a HR above 75% of max? The problem isn’t not enough aerobic work, but rather, not enough high intensity work. It’s extremely easy for players to jog laps on their own time, but much harder to enter that push-it-to-the-limit state alone. That said, let’s do the intense stuff with the performance coach and the entire squad so players are motivating and pushing one another to get better.
Can we do a 1v1 or 2v2 drill on a large pitch for 60-90 second bouts?
Can we play a 6v6 or 7v7 game with the ball constantly in play with no pause for 3 minutes straight?
Can we do relay races to elicit a competitive and maximal effect?
Get creative with the set-up of your tactical and fitness drills. Sport scientist Tony Strudwick discusses more specifics in his book Soccer Science (see resources below).
7. With that said, anaerobic work improves aerobic capacity.
Recently, one of my elite college girls text me this:
It’s funny because, not once did we run a 1-mile test during her entire off-season.
Instead, we performed a myriad of speed endurance, Tabata-style, 90-95% of HR max anaerobic conditioning drills, as well as built her strength and power in her upper and lower extremities for several months.
Oh, and sometimes we did crazy shenanigans like this on Christmas Eve:
One more thing: I can’t pin point one time when my players uttered the words, “Coach, we ran TOO hard today.” More often than not, my players get pissed when we don’t run hard enough.
8. Athletes who know how to push their limits thrive
Adding on, athletes need to learn how to push past discomfort. To that end, most conditioning drills are supposed to be a challenge. A lung-burning-I-want-to-puke-and-lay-down-and-die challenge. Do more of them.
And with appropriate recovery sessions, your players will blossom into beasts on the pitch.
Before you leave me…
Other Resources on Soccer Conditioning