Staying on the field for an entire soccer match may seem like no big deal. You spend lots of time standing still, walking or jogging slowly. But when it comes down to the final minutes, can you sprint as fast as you could at the beginning of the match?
According to Dr. Ian Rollo, a senior scientist at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, this is a problem for many soccer players. "Typically the most goals are conceded in the final 15 minutes," he says. "Players begin to fatigue and more errors creep into the game."
Players cover great distances during games, but the critical moments typically involve intense bursts of speed. "Soccer is a high-intensity, intermittent sport," adds Rollo. "The distinguishing factor between moderate- and high-level players is the ability to perform repeated sprints."
To improve this important aspect of your game, you need to understand how your body produces energy, then train and fuel to meet the demands of your sport.
Energy Systems and Soccer
Your body is powered by its aerobic and anaerobic energy systems.
Key moments in matches usually involve sprints lasting an average of six seconds. These are powered by your anaerobic energy system. Stored fuel in your muscles (in the form of phosphocreatine and glycogen) provide immediate but limited energy for high-intensity activity. This allows you to sprint, but it also explains why you fatigue quickly.
Once you fatigue, your aerobic energy system kicks in to replenish your fuel stores. "A higher aerobic base allows [your muscles] to re-synthesize their intramuscular levels of phosphocreatine and recover quicker between high-intensity efforts," explains Rollo.
Your aerobic energy system predominates during low-intensity activity like walking and jogging, which are primarily fueled by the oxidation of fat and carbohydrate. But inter-sprint recovery is of most concern for soccer players.
Conditioning Both Energy Systems
If you jog to get in shape for soccer, it's time to change your approach. "Traditional endurance training is not optimal training for [both] energy systems," asserts Rollo. Instead, he recommends interval workouts that improve both speed and endurance. You perform multiple sets of high-intensity exercises such as sprints, interspersed with rest periods.
"That's been shown to induce adaptations similar to traditional aerobic training, but with a significantly reduced volume," Rollo says. "It's also associated with the adaptation within muscles that allows a player to continue performing and recover from high-intensity efforts."
As a starting point, Rollo recommends setting up a dribbling course of your choice on half the field. Dribble through the course as quickly as you can for four minutes, then rest for three to four minutes. Repeat three or four times.
Maximizing Endurance With Nutrition
Your conditioning workouts won't do you much good if you're low on fuel. "If your muscle glycogen is low when you begin the game, then you've almost depleted your stores by halftime," says Rollo. "That depletion is directly related to the ability to perform high-intensity efforts."
To maximize your energy, consume about 25 grams of carbohydrate from something like Gatorade Prime Energy Chews or Sports Fuel Drink 15 minutes before a game. This fuel won't last for an entire game, so you need to continue to fuel, which can sometimes be tricky. "It's not like American football. You're limited to breaks in play and the halftime period," Rollo says. So he recommends consuming a carbohydrate beverage like Gatorade Thirst Quencher whenever you have the opportunity while you're on the sidelines. And take in another 25 grams of carbs during halftime so you have sufficient energy at the end of the game.
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