Oct 20, 2015Best Foot Forward
During its grueling fall schedule, the University of North Carolina-Charlotte men’s soccer team stays ahead of the pack by combining high-intensity work with an emphasis on recovery.
The following article appears in the November 2015 issue of Training & Conditioning.
In-season training for NCAA Division I men’s soccer is a unique beast. From August to December, the University of North Carolina-Charlotte squad plays between 20 and 28 games, depending on how far we advance in the postseason. We need every regular season win in order to boost our strength of schedule rating, so there is no perfect time of year to peak.
To further complicate matters, NCAA regulations prevent us from starting official team practices until roughly two weeks before our first regular season game. This makes planning out a periodized in-season training schedule quite difficult, yet it is imperative for our success.
We adjust to these challenges by holding very intense, but optional, summer and preseason training, which ensures the athletes hit near-optimal levels of fitness once the season kicks off. Then, we aim to maintain that level as the season progresses by working the high and low ends of the intensity spectrum, with a special emphasis on recovery. And to guarantee there is no wasted effort in the weightroom, we tailor all of our lifting to players’ position-specific demands. Combined with our use of state-of-the-art technology, these strategies allow us to keep our foot firmly on the gas throughout the season.
For my first two years with the Charlotte 49ers squad, this approach yielded positive results. During that time, the team won two Conference USA championships, hosted two games in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and finished the 2014 season ranked in the top 15 nationally. Going forward, we’ve got our eyes set on a national title, and I believe our in-season approach will help us get there.
FOCUS ON FITNESS
One of our top priorities with in-season training is working the high end of the intensity spectrum. The main goal with these sessions is replicating in-game demands. Charlotte men’s soccer has built a reputation as one of the fittest teams in the country. We play a very compact and mobile version of the game, so all of our field players run between six and nine miles in each match. They are expected to attack in waves for the entire game, and we press hard and often.
The vast majority of our high-intensity in-season conditioning work occurs during team practices using soccer drills. Head Coach Kevin Langan and I never think about conditioning being separate from soccer. The sessions usually last 90 minutes to two hours, and they typically consist of athletes running more than five miles total.
We classify our high-intensity workouts as either “velocity load” or “body load.” Depending on the demands of the game we just played, the style of game we expect to play next, how long we have between games, and how many training sessions we will have during that time, will determine whether we train for velocity load or body load. This is a strategy I learned from Dave Tenney, MS, CSCS, Sports Science and Performance Manager for MLS’s Seattle Sounders. He says the key is to not train both qualities on the same day.
Velocity load days focus on attaining maximum speed, emphasizing running technique, and sprint patterning. Training consists of larger-sided games of seven or more per side, with players running linearly. The athletes are expected to hit at least 85 to 90 percent of their maximum speed throughout the course of the session.
Body load days are geared more toward training acceleration and deceleration. These workouts incorporate small-sided games of six or less per side, more changes of direction, and a higher total distance covered.
Two tools that have helped us quantify our high-intensity training outcomes are GPS devices and heart rate monitors. Players wear these during practices and games, and we track total distance, high-intensity distance, number of sprints, maximum speed, session duration, maximum heart rate, and cumulative time in each heart rate zone. Monitoring both internal and external metrics provides us with a more complete picture of the daily stresses the athletes are under.
The 2014 season was our first using the devices, and although we learned a lot last year, we still have a long way to go to fully maximize the technology’s potential. Probably the biggest takeaway has been recognizing that data progresses through three stages: 1) descriptive, 2) prescriptive, and 3) predictive.
Our data was very descriptive last year. We didn’t make any sweeping changes to our training but used the data to define benchmarks for the typical demands faced by players during practices and games. The coaching staff and I had daily pre-practice meetings where we planned that day’s session, and then we reviewed post-practice training reports together. As the season progressed and we gained a better understanding for what our sessions entailed, we were able to monitor practices to ensure we were maintaining a certain level of workload.
This year, we’re hoping to enter more of a prescriptive phase. Now that we have data that quantifies players’ efforts, the coaching staff is using a drill calculator when designing practices to assist in achieving our predetermined output goals.
Down the road, we’re aiming to use the data in a predictive way. We’re hoping to implement algorithms that analyze multiple data sets to predict the outcome of an event. For example, one goal is to estimate each player’s injury risk in a given practice based on past metrics.
When it comes to in-season strength training, I keep our program very specific to the demands of soccer and our athletes. This starts by assessing players’ postural and movement dysfunctions and addressing them during weight training.
Eccentric loading from hundreds of accelerations and decelerations builds up big, strong quads in soccer players, and they spend a lot of time bent over while defending or on the ball. This combination screams for posterior chain training, so we focus on exercises that level the pelvis, fix muscle imbalances, and improve proper muscle firing patterns.
Nordic curls are one popular way of addressing some of these issues, but there are many others that will also do the trick, such as back squats, Bulgarian split-squats, glute-ham raises, hip thrusts, step-ups, Romanian dead lifts, trap bar dead lifts, slideboard pushes, and prone leg curl machines. You read that last one right-I use a machine. Hamstring strength at the knee is highly undervalued and is hard to achieve with free weights alone.
Besides addressing movement dysfunctions, our strength training is individualized and position-specific. Two variables that determine what kind of strength plan an athlete follows are the number of years he has been in our program and playing time. The top 15 players in our rotation focus more on maintenance during the season, while the rest of the team works toward continued development. Outlined below are some of the strength training details for each position group.
Goalkeepers need to be like tigers-explosive and strong-and they should be regulars in the weightroom. Depending on whether they are a starter or reserve, keepers lift two to four times per week. We regularly adjust each session’s volume and intensity based on the players’ competitive demands, as the in-season schedule is too irregular to have a training plan written in stone.
Veteran goalkeepers focus mostly on lower-body power via Olympic lifts, contrast training, and plyometrics. We use Tendo units to measure their bar speed during select lifts, and we keep a close eye on the state of their central nervous system. When they are fresh, we go hard in the weightroom. But when they are drained, we focus more on technique and core work.
Programs for the underclassmen keepers are mostly focused on body composition and general work capacity. We emphasize building a strong and balanced foundation first and then add more speed and power-based training as they progress.
Central defenders and target forwards need to be like gorillas-powerful, strong, and quick. These athletes follow hypertrophy and strength-based programs during the season, lifting two days per week, with intensities in the 80 to 95 percent range. I don’t worry as much about the added fatigue of weight training with this group, as their overall practice load is typically lower than the other positions’.
We want to build strength with veteran central defenders and target forwards, so we stick to tried and true compound exercises like back squats, bench presses, weighted pull-ups, and rows for one to five reps each. These athletes also utilize Olympic lifts and contrast training to work on force production.
Most underclassmen central defenders and target forwards need to put on mass before they worry about strength. Therefore, we have them follow Charles Poliquin’s tempo training methods, which emphasize time under tension for optimal hypertrophy.
Strikers need to be like cheetahs-sheer speed is the name of the game, but they require time to recover between bouts. In-season lifting is optional with this group. Players who really like lifting will find the time for it, while players who need the added rest are encouraged to take it.
Strikers need a solid strength base to maintain game-changing speed, so players who choose to lift complete heavy lower-body work with the trap bar and Romanian dead lift. We keep the emphasis on quality and speed of movements, and I use Tendo units to get instant feedback on the velocity generated. We are careful never to let form or quality deteriorate in exchange for more bar speed.
Fullbacks and wide midfielders need to be like gazelles-capable of running long distances at a good rate of speed, with the ability to change direction on a dime. Our central midfielders need to be like thoroughbreds who can tolerate load at medium speeds for long distances. Fullbacks and midfielders are grouped together for strength training work.
With our team’s style of play, these athletes are our pillars on the field. Similar to the strikers, they have optional in-season lifts, and we give them the most freedom to take rest when they need it. When they are in the weightroom, these players perform total body strength maintenance via the trap bar, step-ups, pull-ups, and prone leg curl machine, using moderate intensity and doing four to eight reps. We’re especially careful to avoid hypertrophy training with this group because of how fatiguing it can be.
Of the athletes who qualify for optional lifting, about half to two-thirds come in once or twice a week. The key to players seeing rest as an important part of maintaining peak performance and not as a sign of “weakness” is transparency. The athletes know the coaching staff’s expectations, our overall plan for the season, and why we train the way we do. They trust our judgment because they’ve seen the positive results firsthand.
RECOVER TO WIN
In college soccer, recovery is everything. Our weeks during the season revolve around playing two or more games, recovery, and training, so if the recovery aspect is missing or incomplete, a breakdown will undoubtedly occur.
While our games, high-intensity practices, and lifting provide the stimuli during the season, off days and low-
intensity sessions allow for fatigue management. This creates a nice ebb and flow during the competitive slate.
Low-intensity in-season sessions are used for both game preparation and post-contest recovery. The game prep sessions are designed to meet the needs of the top 15 players in our rotation and have a hard stop time of 90 minutes. The aim is for the athletes to have a low heart rate throughout, so the workload is in the three to five mile range, with minimal to no high-intensity running. The priorities during post-game recovery sessions revolve around getting guys moving with low impact, controlling their emotional responses to performance outcomes (not too high after wins and not too low after losses), and balancing their movement adaptation needs without further fatiguing them.
In many ways, it’s during our low-intensity sessions that the success of the season is decided. There is an art to only doing what needs to be done, and pushing athletes too far early on could burn them out.
Working with Coach Langan makes it easier for me to properly plan low-intensity sessions. He is a brilliant tactician with a clear vision for the team and a tremendous amount of self-awareness, so he is adept at communicating exactly what he wants. When it comes to planning recovery work, Coach Langan and I discuss the current state of the athletes, what we need from them, and the overall team dynamic. He then gives me the freedom to design the session based on those guidelines.
A valuable tool that helps us strike the right balance between in-season work and recovery is the concept of Training Stress Balance. This is something I learned from Mladen Jovanovic, a Football Physiologist for ASPIRE Academy in Qatar. By comparing a rolling seven-day average of a metric to a 42-day average for the same metric, we can see how athletes’ acute stress relates to the chronic stress levels they are accustomed to. If the acute stress value starts climbing too high above the chronic value, there is an increased risk of overtraining. When the opposite happens, it means the athletes are at an increased risk for under training because they are not reaching the necessary stimuli.
Not all recovery strategies are appropriate for every athlete at all times, so we are aiming to become more precise in how we program this aspect of training. To individualize our recovery strategies, we started using Omegawave prior to the start of the 2015 season. Using data gleaned from this tool, we have a better idea of which athletes are fatigued, which energy system is fatigued, and how we can tailor recovery sessions to their needs.
For example, if we find athletes are sympathetically dominant, we do a session to stimulate their parasympathetic nervous system. This could entail listening to reggae music, a team walk around campus, yoga, breathing exercises, or visualization work. Conversely, if athletes are parasympathetically dominant, we’ll implement easy games like soccer tennis or do some movement patterning, contrast bathing, or prehab work.
When we’re traveling and we don’t have as much control over our surroundings, I’ve found sessions in hotel pools are excellent for full-team recovery. We set up Bluetooth speakers, play upbeat music, and do a dynamic warm-up and some light competitions in the water. The goal is to get players to have fun, relax, and move around a bit.
It’s easy to do too much when it comes to in-season training for men’s soccer. However, with a careful eye on balancing fitness, lifting, and recovery, and honing in on exactly what our players need and respond to, we can continue to put the pedal to the metal throughout a long competitive season.
This saying from The Little Book of Talent by Daniel Coyle sums up my philosophy well: “Think like a gardener, work like a carpenter.” We have a long-term plan in place that won’t bear fruit immediately, but we work with a specific purpose every day toward that goal.
Sidebar: FUELING THE 49ERS
As the co-owner of a whole foods snack bar business called brüks bars, nutrition has been a lifelong passion of mine. It’s only natural that I’ve made it a priority with the University of North Carolina-Charlotte men’s soccer team.
In the offseason, we have our players fill out weeklong food diaries to get a sense of their fueling habits. Over the years, we’ve found many do not eat enough total calories or get a steady stream of protein during the day, and others have too long of a gap between the last meal of one day and the first of the following day. Solutions have been:
• Offering more protein options as snacks
• Ordering larger quantities of food at team meals, with athletes taking leftovers home
• Suggesting the shared purchase of blenders for players who live together to be used for green smoothies and post-workout and pre-bed shakes.
Our coaching staff has also taken on a bigger role in nutrition and lifestyle education with players. This means going grocery shopping together to talk about what to purchase and what to avoid, informal cooking lessons, meal preparation planning for the hectic in-season schedule, and accompanying athletes to their favorite local restaurants to go over healthy menu options.
Sidebar: TAKING TRACK TO THE FIELD
As an undergrad at the University of Illinois, I was a scholarship sprinter in the 400m and 600m runs. So although I don’t have experience playing soccer, my track background gives me a unique perspective on the cardiovascular and speed demands of the sport.
The majority of game-changing moments in soccer require a player to make a short, linear sprint without the ball. I interpret this as: If athletes want to have an impact on the game, they better know how to sprint!
While most soccer players are either fast over long distances or very quick in confined spaces, most have never learned basic running mechanics, how to optimally accelerate or decelerate, or how to safely change direction. This is something I knew I could help improve.
During our spring training, we spend six to eight weeks on developing proper movement patterns. This training is for everyone. While the veterans might be a bit further along than the incoming players, it’s never a bad idea to rehearse the basics.
We often dedicate one full day during this time to teaching correct sprint mechanics, and then revisit the concept daily for 10 to 15 minutes. Most of our time is spent on the fundamentals of running, such as correct posture, use of the upper body, hip separation, relaxation, and driving the ground past you. We also examine acceleration hindrances, like false steps, standing up too early in the sprint, and shifting weight backward. Each movement progresses from a staggered stance using verbal starts, to a bi-lateral stance with a visual cue (on a pass), to an unconventional stance using a cognitive start (a red cone means one direction, while a green cone means another).
It’s important to rehearse proper technique over and over again, stopping every time something isn’t right and talking about what went wrong. Ingraining new movement patterns takes many hours before they become second nature, but when athletes know what to look for, they are able to self-correct quickly.
Although the bulk of our work on running mechanics is done during the spring, we also address it every day during the season. Doubling as a warm-up, we use the first five to 20 minutes of daily training to practice a movement pattern or sprint quality, which helps keep it fresh in athletes’ minds.