Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: The Rise of the New Footballer

Soccer has always been a sport anchored in its traditions. Predictable. Steadfast. Eternal. From its obscure origins in ancient Egypt and China, to the birth of calcio in medieval Italy and the emergence of the modern game on the muddy fields of Industrial England, soccer is woven into the fabric of society, linking divergent cultures and spanning generations. The rules of the game have changed little over the past century but the soccer player has gone through a metamorphosis.

What defines today's soccer player? They are as likely to be female as male. They are bigger, faster, and stronger than before. They are mentally tough and physically durable, with playing careers that last decades longer than ever before. But footballers are made, not born, and dedication to soccer training is something that has always distinguished the elite athlete. Today, breakthroughs in exercise physiology, mental training, nutrition, and technology are close to unlocking the elite potential in every soccer player.

This series will examine the fusion of science and soccer that has ignited the development of the modern athlete.

Part 1: The Physical Game

The greatest change in the game of soccer over the past twenty-five years has been the growing emphasis on the physical capacity and capability of the player. Even the most technical and successful players of soccer’s golden age of the 1950’s and 60’s wither when physically compared to the athletes of today. Much of this evolution has come from improved soccer training techniques driven by an increasing wealth of player data. But how does fitness improve performance and extend careers? The answers can be found by examining the most important physical elements of soccer: endurance, speed, strength, and injury prevention.

Endurance

Soccer is characterized by long periods of low to moderate aerobic demands punctuated by repeated short bursts of high speed linear acceleration. The average field player runs 10-11 km per game at roughly a 13 minute/mile pace mixed with 50-60 sprints of 10-20 meters and over 700 changes in direction. Better players run more sprints at a faster pace than less effective players. Motion analysis has also shown that goalkeepers are much more active than previously thought, covering nearly half the distance run by midfielders. Because of the need for long periods of jogging spiked with repeated bursts of sprinting, interval aerobic training is the single most efficient way to improve performance and decrease fatigue.

Speed

Speed kills. Why is it so important in soccer? Because it leads to goals. A recent study from the Bundesliga showed that repetitive short sprints off the ball were the single most important factor in creating goal scoring chances. Since speed is a product of the stride length and stride frequency, it is very technique-dependent and can be dramatically improved with training. To run faster, simply moving your legs quicker is not enough. Vertical force is king. When higher forces are generated, you spend less time on the ground and rise higher off the pitch. The result? Stride length and frequency both increase and you get faster. Applying vertical propulsive force quickly is the key to generating speed. Essentially, you need to bounce. 

The “bounce” that powerful sprinters create is the result of good upright posture, foot placement, hip extension, and focused relaxation. While strength training, plyometrics, and eccentric core exercises can improve vertical force generation, nothing improves sprinting more than, well, repeated sprinting. Dedicated off-season sprint training with a speed coach can transform a player by improving running mechanics and core strength.

Since most soccer runs are shorter than the 60 meters needed for any athlete to reach maximal running velocity, it’s important for a player to maximize acceleration and minimize braking. That bottom line: flat-out linear speed is a game-breaker and it can be learned. While jumping, heading, change-of-pace, and cutting are all great, increasing straight ahead speed remains mission critical.

Strength

The biggest difference between the elite player of today and the past is strength. The introduction of high intensity training (HiT), and Olympic-style weight programs improve anaerobic capacity and performance in players already functioning at the edge of their lactate thresholds. Why? Strength improves acceleration, running efficiency, and your ability to recover quickly between sprints. Bigger muscles mean better springs, which lead to higher bounce. And that can make you fast. Really fast.

Injury Prevention

The most challenging barrier to elite performance and career length in soccer is injury. The Next Gen soccer player uses every tool available to prevent injury and hasten recovery and proper pre-training dynamic warmup is key to this strategy. Aggressive stretching has been shown to increase injury rates and decrease performance and has now been replaced by gradual sub-maximal muscle activation.

Extensive research has shown that hamstring strains can be prevented by performing regular eccentric (muscle contraction during joint extension) exercises like Nordic Hamstring Curls. The data for this is so strong that FIFA now recommends it for all soccer players. This works because the muscle improves its capacity to handle violent extensile force during contraction. Correcting muscle imbalance (like those encountered between the quadriceps and hamstrings) and improving core strength may also help decrease risk exposure to career threatening non-contact injury like anterior-cruciate knee ligament rupture.

Surprising new research from the NFL links low serum Vitamin D levels (less than 40 ng/ml) with increased muscle and bone injuries and diminished performance levels. Because 77% of people are Vitamin D deficient, daily supplementation with 2,000 IU Vit D3 is recommended to lower the risk of musculoskeletal injury. Remember to consult with a physician before starting any high dose vitamin supplementation regimen.

Rocco Monto, MD, is an award-winning orthopedic surgeon & sports medicine specialist, writer, and lecturer. Recognized for his pioneering clinical research and candid medical opinions, Dr. Monto has been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CBS News, Discovery Channel, Fox News, Stack, New Yorker, Yahoo Sports, Outside Magazine, and many other media. He is a team physician for US Soccer.

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This article first appeared in Storelli.com