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Staying Match Fit in Isolation

Social distancing poses a unique challenge for players and teams. The most important thing is to stay safe, stay healthy and make sure others are too. But is it also possible to maintain match-fitness? Government guidelines means that small-sided games and friendly matches are out of the question. So, what’s the next best thing? This mini case study demonstrates some key metabolic considerations, using real match day data obtained from a professional player to demonstrate the points. 

Metabolic Demands

The metabolic demands are the demands that are placed on the body’s energy systems. When we talk about ‘endurance’ and ‘fitness’ in football we need to consider how the game is played. Below is a typical energy expenditure breakdown. This is real data and represents an example of the typical energy split of what most players I’ve worked with tend to hit in matches. 

As we can see the overall amount of energy expended was estimated to be 1248 Kcal and this was an almost an even split between aerobic and anaerobic energy. This means it is important to train both energy systems equally. But what exactly does this metabolic split consist of and how should it be trained? 

Aerobic vs Anaerobic Training 

To train the aerobic energy system you have two main options: distance runs, and tempo runs. Distance runs are typically 5km or more. They can be used to train aerobic endurance and can be progressed from session to session by either increasing the distance slightly or doing the same distance in less time. Tempo runs for footballers typically involve a few reps and sets of 50–100 metre efforts running at 60-80% of top speed, with shorter rest periods between reps and longer rest periods between sets. They train aerobic power and can be progressed by increasing the tempo of each rep or keeping the same tempo as the last session but increasing the overall amount of reps. Tempo runs will increase your VO2 max but crucially, they will increase the point at which a player’s anaerobic threshold occurs.

Let’s take a look at the importance of this now. Below is an example of what we call a metabolic zone breakdown for a pro player during a match. Note that the following actions typically make up each of the met zones: 

Met Zone

Typical Actions
Met Zone 1  Walking, Jogging
Met Zone 2Low-Speed Runs, Decelerations
Met Zone 3High-Speed Runs, Accelerations
Met Zone 4 Sprints, Accelerations
Met Zone 5High-Intensity Accelerations, Max Sprints

As we can see, the player is covering more distance in the lower met zones than the higher met zones and in the lower met zones the distance covered is greater than the relative energy cost. This is because in these met zones the player is using their aerobic energy system, so the distance is covered fairly easily, by expending energy aerobically. When working in the higher met zones, we can see they are now expending much more energy (Kcal) relative to the distance they are covering. This is because these zones are of a higher metabolic intensity, which causes players to enter their anaerobic threshold and start to expend energy anaerobically. This makes distance covered in these zones much more metabolically demanding, so the energy cost starts to outweigh the distance, as we can see in the graph. 

Met zone 5 usually consists of high-intensity accelerations rather than anything else. These have by far the greatest energy cost, making them the most metabolically demanding action in football. To emphasize this point, consider this: the acceleration phase of a sprint is on average around 3x as metabolically demanding as the steady speed phase. The record-breaking sprint from last years’ champions league was recorded as 34.5km/h and was performed by Virgil Van Dijk. It would take a maximal sprint approaching this kind of record-breaking speed to enter met zone 5. Even then, it would be the high-intensity acceleration phase of that sprint that was by far the most demanding part.

To stay match fit, players must consider the overall energy split of match play for their playing position and then train across all of the met zones accordingly. Aerobic training can consist of a mix of longer distance jogs and tempo runs. Anaerobic training can consist of high-speed running, sprints, and most demanding of all, high-intensity accelerations. The most specific form of training will be a combination of all met zones, using interval training, replicating the actual demands of the game where high-intensity bursts are interspersed with lower intensity recovery periods. Mix your training up, train across each met zone, and be specific with your targets for each session that you do. This blog post has focused on the metabolic demands of match play. The next one will take a look at the key mechanical considerations. In particular, we will look at the importance of deceleration and multi-directional training so stay tuned for that. Until then, stay safe, stay home and stay active.

Author: Raj is a Sports Scientist at a Premier League football club, specialising in physical performance. He is also a UEFA and FA Youth Award football coach and has worked with youth, academy, senior professional and international players. 

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