Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Does the Game Improve Fitness?

There is little argument that peak performance in soccer requires a high level of fitness. Soccer fitness includes a variety of components from cardiovascular fitness, strength, power and agility. How to best improve these components is a question that is debated among coaches and trainers. On the Science of Soccer Online, we have discussed the value of strength training (weight lifting), sprint training, balance and agility training and small-sided games as ways to improve performance during a match. All have their benefits and can lead to gains in one or more soccer fitness components. But what about full-sided, competitive matches? Competition imposes a considerable “physiological load” on the athlete. But is it great enough to affect fitness? Recent research suggests that the answer is yes, playing competitive matches on a weekly basis can positively benefit strength, speed and agility.

Two recent studies examined the relationship between match play and fitness. The first study, performed at the University of Porto (Portugal), examined various marker of fitness over the course of a professional season (1-2 matches per week). Players were tested before the start of the season, at mid-season and at the end of the season. The researcher found that short spring speed (5 meters, a measure of acceleration) was related to the number of minutes played. More minutes played lead to greater improvements in speed. Also, changes in quadriceps and hamstring muscle strength were correlated with the number of minutes played during the season – strength improved in players who played the greatest number of minutes. This was particularly true for hamstring strength.

The second study, carried out by researcher at the University of Zagreb (Croatia), compared changes in fitness markers over the course of the season between starters and non-starters. The starters played more than 1000 minutes in official matches (the equivalent of 11 90-min matches) while the non-starters played fewer minutes. Over the course of the season, the starters were able to maintain and improve their agility and overall power performance more so than the reserves. Tests of sprinting, jumping and kicking the ball were all improved by match play.

A 90 minute match may require players to cover as much as 10 kilometers (6.2 miles). This includes high-intensity running every 70 seconds, up to 20 sprints, as well as many changes in direction. While the required efforts vary between playing position, it is clear that the physical demands of a match are considerable. Thus, it is not surprising that those players who play the most minutes enjoy the greater benefit to fitness. A greater physiological lead translates into improved fitness.

It should be pointed out that both studies used highly trained, adult players as subjects. So, it is possible that younger players may respond differently to matches. In fact, the distance covered, the number of high-intensity sprints performed and the number of jumps, stops and turns are all less during a youth game compared to a professional match. Liberal substitution rules and shorter matches can also affect the amount of time players spend on the field. Thus the impact of playing weekly matches on a young player’s fitness might be smaller than on an adult’s. A 2008 study showed that young starting players (10-14y) improved various fitness components over the course of a season whereas reserve players did not.  While this might be due to growth, more match play may have been responsible. Therefore, given this and the demands of a youth match, it seems reasonable to suggest that playing competitive matches would also improve or maintain several fitness components in young players.

These studies suggest that over the course of a season, match play can improve (or maintain) various components of soccer fitness. Specifically, strength, agility and speed are all positively affected by competitive games. As for training, the authors also suggest that coaches should consider including completive training matches for those players whose playing time may be limited (non-starters or reserves). In addition, these types of matches might also be considered during weeks when the team is not scheduled to play a competitive, weekend match. This would provide players with the training stimulus that is missed during the weekend match.

References:

Gravina L, Gil SM, Ruiz F, Zubero J, Gil J, Irazusta J (2008) Anthropometric and physiological differences between first team and reserve soccer players aged 10-14 years at the beginning and end of the season. J Strength Cond Res, 22: 1308-1314.

Silva JR, Magalhães JF, Ascensão AA, Oliveira EM, Seabra AF, Rebelo AN (2011) Individual match playing time during the season affects fitness-related parameters of male professional soccer players. J Strength Cond Res, DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31820da078

Sporis G, Jovanovic M, Omrcen D, Matkovic B (2011) Can the official soccer game be considered the most important contribution to player's physical fitness level?, J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 51: 374-380.