Jan 29, 2015No Stopping ‘Em
Carefully designed aerobic workouts and sport-specific movement drills lay the training foundation for the high-flying University of Portland women’s soccer team.
By Dr. Terry Favero
Terry Favero, PhD, is Professor of Biology and Conditioning Coordinator for the two-time national champion women’s soccer team at the University of Portland. He has also worked with the U.S. men’s soccer team in preparation for the 2000 Olympics and the regional Olympic Development Program. He can be reached at: [email protected].
Having worked with soccer players for years, I fully understand how important conditioning is to a team’s success. But if I ever need a reminder, I simply recall the University of Portland women’s team’s run to the 2005 NCAA Division I national championship.
On Dec. 2, the squad played a grueling 110-minute match against Penn State–90 minutes of regulation and two 10-minute overtimes. That physically and mentally draining contest, broadcast on national television, wasn’t over until we won 4-3 on penalty kicks.
Less than 48 hours later, the Pilots took on UCLA in the national championship game. Despite playing on short rest, we came out strong, scoring in the first two minutes and adding another goal before the 10-minute mark of the first half. Our offense and defense fired on all cylinders, and we captured the title with a 4-0 victory. With so little recovery time, I have no doubt that our athletes’ excellent physical condition helped make the difference.
Portland’s women soccer players take great pride in their conditioning level. They love seeing their opponents being “subbed out” due to fatigue and the decline in technique and skill that comes with it. As the team’s conditioning coach, it’s my job to prepare them to both outplay and outlast their opponents.
We have three main goals for our soccer training program. The most important is increasing aerobic capacity, which in turn increases lactate threshold, spares precious glycogen, delays fatigue, and improves running economy.
During a typical 90-minute game, elite-level players run roughly six miles at an average intensity near their anaerobic threshold. Studies have shown a significant positive correlation between VO2 max and soccer performance during match play (see Bangsbo, J., et al., in the “References” box at the end of this article for one example), and aerobic training has been shown to increase VO2 max and lactate threshold. A recent study from Norway indicates that aerobically trained athletes average almost twice as many sprints per game, cover greater distances, and have more contact with the ball. It was also found that fitter players connect on more of their pass attempts (see Helgerud, J., et al., in the “References” box).
Our second goal is to develop proper form and movement mechanics. We do this by eliminating incorrect or suboptimal movement patterns and improving motor skills used for running, jumping, changing direction, and overall agility. The average player may run six miles per match, but a soccer game is nothing like a six-mile run. Players must sprint, jump, slide, change direction on a dime, kick, and sustain muscle contractions. With that in mind, I employ drills that address all aspects of movement and allow me to identify and correct any flaws.
The third goal is developing functional strength. This includes muscle power related to acceleration, explosive jumping, safe landing, deceleration, and increasing core-hip strength to combat weakness in the lateral hip complex and prevent knee injuries.
Each workout I design takes these goals into account, but they’re not my only considerations. Our soccer training regimen is designed to complement and support the coach’s practice schedule, and never duplicate activities or overwork the players. For instance, team practices with the ball are intense and involve many sprinting and agility movements, so I don’t prescribe high-intensity work to coincide directly with those sessions.
In addition, because our soccer players don’t have time to devote exclusively to anaerobic and aerobic conditioning, speed, agility, and strength, each workout addresses multiple objectives. Rather than have a “speed day” or an “agility session,” I blend our workouts to provide several levels of challenges that dovetail with what the coach is doing.
How do I translate our program goals and my aerobics-first philosophy into actual workouts? I start by asking the coach for the particulars of his practice schedule. I also touch base with the players to gather any thoughts they may have about the team’s progress. And finally, I take into account the time of year–we have different priorities during the season, in the off-season, and over the summer, which I’ll explain in detail later on.
For aerobic development, my favorite workout is called aerobic-acceleration intervals. It mirrors the interval-heavy nature of soccer, and its goal is twofold: to enhance aerobic capacity, and to increase the anaerobic power required in starting and accelerating.
I place a row of cones at 20-yard intervals over a distance of 100 yards. Beginning at one end of the row, the athletes run to each successive cone and back, starting with the nearest one. For each interval, I tell them to maintain a certain percentage of max effort on the way out: 85 percent for the first interval (the 20-yard run), 80 percent for the second (40 yards), then 75 percent (60 yards), 70 percent (80 yards), and finally 65 percent when running the full 100 yards. After rounding each cone, on the way back they run at 50 percent of max effort (slightly faster than a jog).
One full cycle of this drill covers a total distance of 600 yards, and a set consists of two consecutive cycles. Each set is followed by a jogging lap around the entire field. We perform five sets in a typical workout.
At the end of an aerobic-acceleration intervals session, each athlete has completed 50 total accelerations and covered about 6,000 yards (not including warmup and cooldown activities). Even though almost all the running is performed below 80 percent of max effort, the athletes’ heart rates typically exceed the anaerobic or lactate threshold during each set. Our players say they like the challenge of running a variety of distances at different intensities–and more importantly, they report that the variety of paces and distances mirrors the demands of a soccer game more closely than typical high-intensity sprint repetitions.
The drill also emphasizes active recovery. There is no walking or standing between intervals, so the athletes teach themselves to “recover on their feet.” This is important, because during games they don’t get to choose when they’ll have to sprint and when they can move at a slower pace.
For movement workouts, I focus on the mechanics of key sport-specific agility movements. Many college soccer players, even at highly successful programs like ours, have received little functional training in areas such as running form, jumping and landing, acceleration, deceleration, and turning mechanics. I try to remedy that with drills targeting individual movement patterns, and I combine this work with appropriate strength training, since muscular weakness is often an underlying cause of poor mechanics.
The key is to break down sport-specific movement patterns into their component parts, and then train and build upon those patterns. Once the foundation is laid, players find they are quicker, more agile, and better able to take advantage of their advanced soccer skills.
During our movement training sessions, I use cones to set up an “activity zone” of 30 to 40 yards, book-ended by two aerobic “recovery zones” of 10 yards each. In each drill, athletes jog through the first recovery zone before performing a targeted movement in the activity zone (see “In the Zone” at the end of this article for a complete list of the movements I choose from). When they reach the second recovery zone, they jog 10 more yards before rounding the last cone and making a return trip.
I break the activity zone work into four different movement planes, each with its own biomechanical focus, and the athletes loop continuously through the setup as they complete the movement skills within a plane. The Forward Series engages the flexor-extensor muscles. The Lateral Series centers on hip abductor and adductor development. The Backward Series addresses navigation and balance while taking advantage of the 30 percent greater energy requirement of backward movements. And while the core muscles are engaged throughout most of the movements, they become the main priority in the Carioca/Footwork Series.
Following each movement series, the athletes jog one lap and then perform three lower-extremity strength-building activities, such as body weight squats and squat jumps. After finishing all four series, they perform a dynamic cooldown.
This workout is a favorite of the players, as it provides great variety, dynamic challenges, and continuous movement. I also like how the jogging surrounding each activity enhances the aerobic benefits. Average heart rates for each series exceed the anaerobic threshold, and some athletes elevate their heart rates into the 190s during the most explosive power movements.
The athletes don’t think of this as an aerobic workout because of the variety and sequencing of the movement patterns, but their heart rate response is similar to what we’d see during 45 minutes of soccer. Plus, the variation in activities mimics soccer demands and trains multiple movement skills, thus addressing a major shortcoming of straight-ahead running.
Another major benefit of this work is that it helps prevent serious injuries to our athletes. As players pass through the activity zone, I can observe their mechanics during each individual movement and correct inefficiencies or poor mechanics. By refining such skills as proper jumping and landing mechanics, we have significantly reduced our injury rates while adding anaerobic muscle power.
PLANNING BY SEASON
The aerobic interval work and movement drill sequences form the bedrock of my soccer conditioning program all year long. But I adjust the frequency and content of the activities to accommodate our team’s training and competitive cycles, and our strength coach complements my work with his own strength-training regimen.
The off-season, from January to May, is a time for coaches to teach techniques and skills, and that’s when we can focus on developing athletes’ strength base and eliminating any functional movement weaknesses. With no games to work around, we usually conduct aerobic training twice a week during the early winter months and once a week after formal spring training starts. Players also perform resistance training at least three times per week using activities such as circuit training, medicine ball work, and exercises with resistance bands. They do some traditional power lifting at this time as well.
From June through August, the movement development sessions are held twice a week, and progress from fundamental/rhythmic and power activities early on to advanced power movements after the first month or so. For aerobic development, I typically use the acceleration interval workout once a week, and supplement it with another weekly aerobic workout. Early in the training season, we may complete only six or seven total cycles in three sets (2-2-2 or 2-3-2), and advance to 10 cycles as the players’ conditioning and aerobic capacity improve.
During the season (from August to December), I incorporate the movement development activities into our extended warmups two or three times a week, emphasizing fundamental/rhythmic and power activities in the first two weeks of competition when we’re developing “game fitness” by playing our schedule. Because of the high physical demands and stresses of the advanced power movements, we rarely perform those during the season.
When the predictable mid-season fatigue sets in, I scale back the intensity of the aerobic-acceleration intervals. For instance, I might eliminate the most demanding 20-yard effort or allow the athletes to take a jogging start instead of having to accelerate from a standing position. But as we approach the end of the season and the playoffs loom, we return to our regular workouts to ensure that we’re in optimal physical condition when the games matter most.
All coaches want fast, agile athletes. At Portland, we want fast, agile athletes who can compete for 90 minutes–or more–with little or no deficit in their work rate. By focusing on aerobic development and fundamental movement activities, we’re building soccer players with the power, quickness, skill, and stamina to become great–and maybe even become champions.
Bangsbo, J., L. Norregaard, et al. “Activity profile of competition soccer.” Canadian Journal of Sport Sciences 16, no.2 (1991): p. 85.
Helgerud, J., L. Engen, et al. “Aerobic endurance training improves soccer performance.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 33, no.11 (2001): 1925-1931.
SIDEBAR: IN THE ZONE
During functional movement workouts, the athletes complete four series of continuous loops through a three-zone setup. The first zone, a “recovery zone” is 10 yards. The next zone is the “activity zone” and is 30-40 yards. The final zone is another 10 yard “recovery zone. The athletes jog through the recovery zones before and after performing a specific movement for the full length of the activity zone. In a typical session, I choose several activity-zone movements from the Forward Series, Lateral Series, Backward Series, and Carioca/Footwork Series (see below). I vary my selections to emphasize different movement skills.
Depending on the time of year and our priorities for the workout, I can select activities from each series that focus on fundamental movements and rhythms, or that train power applications, or that train advanced power movements. After completing each movement series, the athletes jog one lap around the field and then perform three lower-extremity strength-building exercises, such as body weight squats, alternating-side lunges, and squat jumps.
Forward Series: Fundamental Movements and Rhythms
• Skip for tempo • Skip-hop with high knee • Skip with leg extension
• Skip for height • Skip for distance
Advanced Power Movements
• Alternate-leg bounding • 2R, 2L bounding
Lateral Series: Fundamental Movements and Rhythms
• Lateral shuffle, easy • Lateral shuffle, easy with arm swing • Lateral push-offs, quick tempo • Back-leg snap-over
• Lateral push-offs, long strides • Lateral hops for height • Lateral hops for distance
Advanced Power Movements
• Lateral hops with crossing legs in the air
Backward Series: Fundamental Movements and Rhythms
• Backward running, easy • Backward open-groin skip • Backward skip with high knees
• Backward bounding • Backward lunge walk
Advanced Power Movements
• Backward lunge with alternating heel touch
Carioca/Footwork Series: Fundamental Movements and Rhythms
• Carioca with 180-degree hip rotation • Easy carioca • Short, quick carioca
• Strides (almost straight-legged) • High-knee carioca
Advanced Power Movements
• 180-degree twist jumps