In recent seasons, I have been struggling with an ever worsening patellar tendinopathy in both knees and often leaves me in pain during and after playing football. Whilst trying to combat this problem in the gym, it has led to an increase interest in footballer’s injuries and how their training programmes could decrease their risk of injury and increase performance.
I believe one of the major areas to the occurrence of injuries to be the lack of skills being mastered by young athletes to help prepare for them for the physical demands of sport. I remember growing up, I would have football training three times a week and sometimes three games a week! That’s an incredible demand on a young body without ever being taught and mastering technique for sprinting, decelerating, landing etc. This should have been a time where I was utilising bodyweight exercises and building strength, mobility and flexibility from the ground up. I think this is a common problem even with most of today’s young athletes and is probably one of the significant reasons in why I suffer with the injury I do today.
“Ronaldo seems to be the athletic target for young footballers, but is he one of a kind?)
Injury is a common occurrence in professional football, a FA (Football Association) audit examined 91 professional football clubs during 2 seasons found that the mean number of days a player was absent due to injury was 24.2 days and that 37% of these injuries were muscular strains (Hawkins, et al, 2001).
This theme seems to have continued to this present day as last season, Sergio Aguero of Manchester City picked up three separate muscular injuries throughout the season with each injury resulting in him being out for 32 days. Aguero was recently quoted by mcfc.com on his new training programme ahead of the new season, “I have to get in an hour and a half early and start off with strength exercises. Then, I work on stability in my hips and sides to strengthen the pelvic area in order to prevent any further injuries by the groin area of the sort that I’d been having.” Without knowing the contents of this programme, it’s hard to comment on the effects it may or may not have, but I think it’s a step forward in trying to combat the problem. It will be interesting to see if this programme helps keep Aguero on the pitch more and avoid injury in the coming season for Manchester City.
Their neighbours, Manchester United, have also suffered recently with muscular injuries with Luke Shaw picking up a hamstring injury ruling him out for up to 4 weeks. Shaw came back from his post-season break after the World Cup a few weeks early, possibly in an attempt to impress his new manager. To most people, this will seem like a positive step from Shaw, but I would rather have seen him utilise his post-season break to the fullest for his body to recover from the demanding previous season. Interestingly, Raymond Verheijen, a fitness coach who most recently worked under Gary Speed with the Wales national team, believes the extra training Shaw was made to undertake to “improve his fitness” was too much too soon during pre-season (check his twitter timeline for more of his thoughts on this https://twitter.com/raymondverheije). This helps explain why footballers so often pick up muscular injuries at the highest level as their excessive schedules and demands of the modern game cause great stress to their bodies.
You would think that elite level footballers would possess great levels of strength to reduce the risk of these injuries and at the same time help improve performance, but with the demanding nature of the modern game, most managers prefer to focus on improving the athlete’s aerobic energy system. A recent article by Mike Guadango on freakstrength.com highlighted this theory as the “soccer” players he has come across have “dismal relative body strength”. He also brought up the fact that due to “soccer” players never really having an off-season it is difficult to achieve any beneficial recovery from the previous season and provide enough time to gain positive results in the gym.
After reading about the above, I wanted to collect the opinion of someone who has recently worked with a professional football team. Joules Wallis, a BSc Sports Science graduate, has recently worked with Manchester City women’s strength and conditioning programme. He believes that the non-contact soft-tissue injuries can be avoided and praised the training system in place at forward thinking MCWFC:
How important do you believe strength and conditioning (S&C) to be for football?
JW: As much as I love S&C, the success of a football team will primarily be influenced by the technical and tactical proficiency of its players and manager. However, I believe S+C can have a huge impact in terms of player longevity and consistency of performance. For example, if key players are hit with non-contact soft-tissue injuries that side-line them for key parts of the season, or goals are conceded in the last 10 minutes of a game because players aren’t able to close down and cover ground with the same intensity as in the first 10 minutes, then the physical preparation of the players could be improved. And that’s where S+C comes in.
What training programme did MCWFC undergo?
JW: Fortunately, due to the open-minded approach MCWFC and MCFC take towards S+C, the women’s team have a considerable amount of time in their schedule dedicated to S+C. Prior to each pitch session, they perform an extensive warm-up (starting in the gym, then moving out onto the pitch) which aside from increasing body temperature, blood flow helps improve glute activation, lower limb control and sprinting mechanics. Twice a week they perform strength/power sessions in the gym, based around lower body compound exercises such as squats and deadlifts. Conditioning and fitness sessions are often interspersed with technical sessions, and their scheduling is dependent on the match schedule. For a week where one game is played, there will be one specific conditioning session (separate from football training). If two games are played, there is no separate conditioning session.
What are the changes made to the training programme from pre-season to in-season?
JW: The priority in preseason is improving aerobic power and capacity and muscular strength and power. The priority for in-season is the maintenance of these characteristics and managing fatigue. Given that fatigue is not as big an issue during pre-season (no games of importance, and none at all to start with), intensity and volume can be relatively high depending on the phase of the training cycle. Players need to be kept as fresh as possible during the in-season, so while the intensity is kept high to prevent a drop in physical performance, volume is cut dramatically.
Are there any particular changes you would like to make to this training programme?
JW: None in particular! Having seen the effectiveness of the current strategy first hand I think the only things I would change would be small and matters of personal preference.
Thanks for reading Part 1, stay tuned for part 2 where we look into the detail of how a football player may incorporate Strength and Conditioning type work into their overall plan and season.