I can picture it now, I had running shoes on a brutally hot day in the mountains of Central Pennsylvania, I was about to dread the next hour. I look to my left at my seemingly ready teammates as we prepare for whatever running exercise we were about to undertake.. We approach the activity with a calm mindset and understanding that we play a sport that requires a massive amount of running. Every bit of the running around the track or up and down the pitch that afternoon was absolutely necessary for us to find success as a group. This was one of the harsh realities I learned as a young player, fitness matters in soccer in a big way, and should be taken seriously at young ages as players grow into the elite levels of the game.
I can hear the criticisms now, mostly from players similar to me as a youngster, who were never really as fit as they should have been. I used to despise when we would run without the ball at soccer practice, we only had two sessions a week, why waste half of the session running around? As a youth coach I struggle to introduce fitness work sometimes with my sides, as I dislike spending the little time I have with my team on something they can do in their spare time, but fitness should be a focus for players for all ages for various reasons. Being fit will lead to less injuries, as you are most likely to be injured when you are tired. I’m not a doctor or a physio, I base what I know from playing experience. I’ve seen teammates go down with hamstring pulls, torn muscles and ligaments, and various other injuries due to their fitness levels failing to meet the standard of the match or schedule the team was currently in. I avoided any major injuries in my playing career in college and my years playing professionally and I believe my extreme focus on fitness had a lot to do with my luck.
Avoiding injuries to crucial players in the squad, especially if a schedule supplies little off time between fixtures, is one of the benefits of teams with extremely high levels of fitness. Tottenham Hotspur took an entire year to get up to the necessary levels of fitness Mauricio Pochettino demands for his tactics to work, and his side have looked like one of the fittest squads in the league. The lack of hamstring injuries and other non contact injuries that plagued Tottenham sides of the past and the current Liverpool and Arsenal sides this season have been absent this season for Spurs. This has allowed a consistent starting 11 to play almost every match this year for Spurs, leading to them being in title contention for the first time in years.
Tottenham have overwhelmed teams this season due to their extremely high fitness levels. Pochettino’s pressing tactics drives the necessity for a side willing and capable of running all out for an entire match. His Southampton and Spurs sides of the past struggled to maintain the pressing tactics for the entire match leading to letdowns defensively as the sides tired. An old school pre-season, heavy in torturous running sessions as described by the squad members allowed for the players to build their fitness levels to the heights necessary for the tactics to work. Players like Erik Lamela and Mousa Dembele look like they have been reinvented under Pochettino this season, and you can see the energy levels in both players is extremely high when they are in the squad.
If you compare ground covered by players in a soccer match in very basic terms, you will find why running more than your opponent is beneficial to your sides chances of winning. If you take ten players on one team who all ran 7 miles during the game. If the opposing team runs just ¾ of a mile more than their opponents, they essentially have ran enough to have an extra player on the field. Running the extra mile in this sport pays off if the entire group is committed to covering as much ground as possible.
There are numerous examples of squads excelling because of their fitness levels in the elite levels of the game. The difference fitness can make is substantial for teams at the international level where the level of skill and talent is very comparable on every squad. Guus Hiddink was successful with his Russian squad in the Euros in 2008 by implementing an intense fitness program prior to the tournament. The USA saw themselves through the group of death in the 2014 World Cup due to Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones covering more ground than their opponents. Obviously neither of these teams won the tournaments they were in, so quality needs to be very high in order to be successful, but fitness levels can be the difference between an early exit and preserving through a difficult group at the international levels.
So how fit do you need to be to play at the elite professional level? A lot of young players fail to grasp exactly how fit some of the players in the Premier League, MLS, or even college soccer truly are. I’ve played with numerous players who have bought themselves MLS contracts and made it to the professional levels solely through their extreme fitness levels. I played against Greg Cochrane, a Philly native who was with LA Galaxy and the Chicago Fire and now plays for San Antonio FC. Greg’s technical ability and skill was never questioned, but what really separated the wide defender from the rest of the pack was his fitness levels. In fact according to studies done by the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance a soccer player has a VO2 max (the measurement of how well you process the oxygen you take in during aerobic activity) of between 62 and 64.(runner's world) Comparable to running a 2 hour and 36 marathon. If you ran a Cooper test, which is a 12 minute run around a track, you would need to run over 9 laps in 12 minutes in order to achieve this level of fitness. You can calculate VO2 max scores here.
When coaching elite level players, coaches need to gain insight into how fit their players are. New studies have looked at recovery after games and training sessions with new insight as to how to ensure players are not overworked. In my eyes coaches take some of these new studies without actually looking at the fitness levels of the players they have. With scoring the VO2 max of the squad, you can tell if players are actually fit enough to compete at the level they are currently at, for the position they play. A semi professional midfielder should look to score a VO2 max of 56. If your squad is not near these scores, you should not question if your squad is being overworked, but rather are they not being worked hard enough on their own personal fitness.
So what advice can be given to the young player who wants to excel at the highest levels game? Make fitness a priority! Gareth Bale, one of the world’s most elite athletes participated in cross country running as a youngster and attributes his participation in the sport to his elite levels of fitness he displays. With fitness comes strength, and injuries will be less prevalent in your game as your fitness increases. Opportunities can arise from a solid skill set matched with an elite fitness level. Being capable of running over 9 laps on a Copper test is by no means easy, but for wide players these days at the elite levels, it is almost a necessity to be an elite level runner and skillful player. .With the likes of Danny Rose and Kyle Walker spending their time bombing up and down the sideline with success, the days of the 6’3” left back who kicks players into the stands are long in the past. It is a no brainer of a concept, high levels of fitness aerobic and anaerobic fitness is extremely important to the success of the elite level soccer player.
More reading on player fitness