It’s a big summer for soccer: the Copa America celebrated its centennial in June, the UEFA Euro tournament concluded last month and the Summer Olympics begin this month in Rio. Here in the states, the Major League Soccer season is also in full swing.
With all that soccer on the brain, I couldn’t help watching and wondering, How do they do that? It’s not just the impeccable skill level it takes to dribble the ball down the field and launch it past the goalie, or the physicality of the tackling and stealing. At a more elemental level I wondered what kind of shape these men and women have to be in to maintain their indefatigable running around the pitch. After all, the average World Cup player runs seven miles during a game.
For some answers to my questions, I turned to the pros: our very own New England Revolution, who were kind enough to let me sit in on a practice. They were about midway through the regular season on the day I attended, so the training regimen was much more about maintenance than conditioning. That means no heavy lifting. The off-season is when players work on strength training and building muscle. Once the season is underway, the focus shifts to regeneration of the muscles that get used and abused during games and keeping the legs fresh throughout the March-October schedule.
The Revs’ Strength and Conditioning Coach is Nick Downing. His job is to keep the team on the field, which sounds a lot simpler than it is. He runs pre-practice stretching and agility drills to get the players warmed up. Once the team moves on to skill and strategy work, Nick will turn his attention to injured players who are not ready for full practice, running them through rehab drills and exercises. During games, he’ll warm up the reserves at halftime. “My job is to keep the players ready to go in at any time,” he says.
Though Nick is a former player, his approach is driven as much by science and data as his own on-field experience. Revs’ players wear high-tech vests – which, to be perfectly honest, look more than a bit like sports bras – that track their vitals and stats throughout practice. Afterward, Nick can download the data to get a snapshot of each individual player’s health and conditioning. Is a guy overheating on the field? Slowing down at a certain point in practice? Is his heart rate spiking abnormally? Nick can use data to identify the problem and take action to correct it. In the process, he’s become the go-to resource players turn to with all their burning fitness questions. “I’ll have guys texting me from the grocery store at night,” he jokes. “Hey, Nick, what kind of salmon should I get, farm-raised or wild caught?”
Yeah, yeah, that’s all impressive – but what I really wanted to know was the answer to my original question: how much running do these guys have to do to stay in shape for a 30-plus game season? Nick notes that in the past, training for soccer players was more running intensive, focusing on goals like running two miles in 10-12 minutes. There’s just one problem with that: very little of the game actually occurs at that level of sustained intensity. “About 60-75% of the time players are at low intensity – walking or jogging,” he explains. “The remainder of the game is high intensity bursts.” Thus, the kind of training that emphasizes moderate to high pace over sustained periods of time actually takes away from both the low and high ends of the intensity scale that players will need to access throughout the 90-plus minutes of play. Nick prefers to have his players “do a lot in a little time,” varying the intensity levels to mirror the peaks and valleys of an actual game.
When all is said and done, soccer players may not run as much as you think, but, trust me, you still couldn’t outrun one of them.
New England Revolution
The Revs continue to play regular season home games through October 23