Endurance training boosts performance on the field

Soccer players need a combination of technical, tactical and physical skills in order to succeed. It is odd, therefore, that Soccer research has tended to focus on technique and tactics, with little emphasis on how to develop the endurance and speed needed to become a better player.

In one of the few studies which has explored the link between endurance capacity and Soccer performance, Hungarian researchers showed that the ranking among the four best teams in the Hungarian top division was reflected by their players' average maximal oxygen-uptake (VO2max) values1. Another investigation found a significant correlation between VO2max and the distance covered by players during matches, the number of sprints per match and the frequency of participation in 'decisive situations'2.

Some studies have also shown that players tend to cover less distance and work at lower intensities during the second half of games than during the first half. The logical interpretation of these findings is that fatigue is limiting the players and that if they were fitter they would perform more effectively in the latter stages of their matches. None the less, until now no investigation has clearly shown that improving aerobic capacity and overall fitness boosts performance on the Soccer field.

Fortunately, that deficiency has now been remedied, thanks to the work of Jan Helgerud and his colleagues at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim3. Their new study involved 19 male players from two Norwegian junior lite teams - 'Nardo' and 'Strindheim' - all of whom had been playing Soccer for at least eight years. Both teams had been among the most successful in Norway over the past five years and six of the participants were members of the Norwegian national junior team. The players had an average age of 18 and mean mass of 72kg (158lb).

Aerobic interval training v extra technical training

Players within each team were randomly assigned to either a training group or a control group, so that each team had members in both groups. In addition to their regular Soccer training and play (four 90-minute practices and one game per week), members of the training group performed aerobic interval training twice a week for eight weeks. Each interval workout consisted of four discrete four-minute work intervals at 90-95% of maximal heart rate, with three-minute recoveries at 50-60% of max heart rate. Technical and tactical skills, strength and sprint training were emphasised in most practice sessions, and about one hour of each practice was devoted to mock Soccer games. While the training group members carried out their four-minute intervals, control soccer players engaged in extra technical training, including heading drills, free kicks and drills related to receiving the ball and changing direction.

At the beginning and end of the eight-week study period, all players were tested for:

  • - VO2max
  • - lactate threshold
  • - vertical jumping height
  • - 40m sprint ability
  • - maximal kicking velocity; and
  • - the technical ability to kick a Soccer through defined targets


After eight weeks of twice-weekly interval training, the players in the training group had;

- Improved VO2max by almost 11%, from 58.1 to 64.3 ml.kg-1.min-1; meanwhile control group players had not upgraded VO2max at all.

- Lactate-threshold running speed improved by 21% and running economy by 6.7% in the training group, while controls again failed to improve at all.

Clearly the players in the training group were gaining tremendous physiological benefits from just two aerobic workouts per week!

Happily, all of these physiological details translated into some markedly improved performances on the Soccer field:

- interval-trained athletes increased the total distance covered during games by 20% (from 8,619 to 10,335m);

-doubled the number of times they sprinted during games (a sprint being defined as an all-out run lasting at least two seconds).

- increased the number of involvements with the ball per game by 24%, from 47 to 59. (Involvements were defined as situations in which a player was either in physical contact with the ball or applying direct pressure to an opponent in possession of the ball.)

Interval training also boosted the athletes' overall ability to play at high intensity; after eight weeks of interval work, they were able to perform at an average of 85.6% of max heart rate during their games, compared with just 82.7% beforehand. Training group members also spent 19 minutes longer than controls in the high-intensity zone (ie above 90% of max heart rate) during an actual game.

Of course, interval training isn't a panacea, and sprint speed, squatting strength, bench-press strength, jumping height, kicking velocity and the technical shooting and passing test were unchanged by the aerobic work, as you might expect.

None the less, this very simple interval training programme produced some dramatic improvements in overall play. Put simply, boosting VO2max, lactate threshold and running economy with interval routines gave the players an enhanced ability to cover longer running distances at higher intensities during games and to be involved with the ball more frequently and thus play a greater role in deciding the outcomes of competitions.

What's the bottom line?

In several key ways, Soccer counts as an 'endurance sport', since the game places a high demand on the cardiovascular system, and since performance ability appears to hinge on physiological variables such as VO2max, lactate threshold and running economy. Thus, performing the types of interval workouts used by endurance athletes should be helpful to soccer players.

Owen Anderson
1 Science and Soccer, T Reilly, A Lees, K Davids, and WJ Murphy (Eds). London: E & F N Spon, 1988, pp 95-107
2 Proceedings of the 1st International Congress on Sports Medicine Applied to Soccer, Rome, 1980, L Vecchiet (Ed) Rome: D Guanillo, 1980, pp 795-801
3 Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, vol 33(11), pp 1925-1931, 2001
4 Running Research News, vol 12-3, pp 11-12, 1996

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