Unlike the Spanish powerhouse, which has been racking up titles for years, Real Salt Lake [RSL] struggled through their first few years of competition. Injuries plagued the team at critical times, because the players lacked the proper strength and health to endure the long MLS season. All that has changed in the past few years, and RSL has evaded the injury bug—thanks to a solid off-season training program.
In 2008, RSL made it to the semifinals. Finally, in 2009, they took home the MLS Cup.
Dan Barlow, RSL’s head strength and conditioning coach, says he’s found the right balance of on-field training and weight room work, which has kept the players healthy and strong to compete at their highest levels on the pitch. “When I came in, we had a team of people who were generally just weak in their hamstrings and glutes and adductors [groin],” he says. “I think, overall, strength training is one of the major [contributors to making us] injury-free as a team over the last couple of years.
“What we’ve done is concentrated our effort, not so much to increase athletic performance—although that is a goal—but to make the players healthier and keep guys on the pitch. [And] the injury rate in the last couple of years has dropped significantly, helping our team become successful toward the end the year.”
Resting on their laurels? Not happening. RSL has continued training hard for the 2010 season, so they can defend their title. Here’s a more in-depth look from
Coach Barlow, as he breaks down the basics of soccer training and his program’s key elements.
Misconceptions about Soccer Training
Players [needing to run] miles upon miles is a common misconception. The fact is that soccer is a power-based sport. Even though the players cover a lot of ground during the game, not a lot is covered at a very high speed. That said, the situations when [players need to run full-speed] are extremely important in the game.
Looking at distances players cover during [an MLS] game: the center midfielder runs less than 10 percent of the game at a really high speed. [And] there are a lot of times when the ball is out of play…for a throw-in, corner kick, goal kick, set pieces, cards; so there really is a lot of dead time. The [idea] that you are just constantly running at a slow pace, that is not really how it happens. It’s many different types of movements with rest between them, and a lot of high-intensity bursts.
Warming up properly, for both the weight training and running program, is extremely important to prevent injuries. Use dynamic stretches for different muscle groups in your lower and upper body for weight training. Make sure you are properly warmed up before you do any program.
This program is really designed around a player who needs to gain some strength and maybe put on a little size. Adding size, especially for a soccer player, is very tricky and not necessarily something all players need. But if done correctly, it could add a little size without slowing [you] down. If anything, it should make [you] somewhat faster and more agile.
The benefits of size depend on the player’s position. Say you’re a forward; strength can help with the ability to hold on to the ball with a defender on your back; and of course, if you’re a defender, being able to go after balls and carry a little weight in the tackle is a benefit.
With the running program, it’s not just a single focus. You have to look at your primary and secondary goals as an athlete, and figure out how you are going to [succeed in] balancing them. I keep it really simple—low volume running. Any player will benefit from working on the [included] agility and plyometrics.
Agility training is a lot more important than straight-line speed. When the ball is around and the play takes off, in whatever part of the field, most of the running you see is athletes changing direction really quickly, or stopping or starting in a different direction. That’s pretty much the definition of agility. Of course you are going to see balls over the top, and you will see forwards running under or toward it—straight-line speed there. But for most situations, agility is actually more important and athletes will benefit more from training it.
We also focus on different aspects of the athlete’s aerobic and anaerobic fitness, as part of the conditioning portion of the off-season training.
Adapting this training to your schedule, if you play in a summer league
Many players can’t get away from playing year-round, and that is understandable. But maybe there is a time when they are playing a little less, and that’s a good time to take on the strength training. [For players who are still playing a lot], I would not add my entire running program, because that is just too much running to see real benefits. The athlete will overtrain. I suggest taking out the low- and high-intensity aerobic workout and substituting playing or on-field training. Try to keep both the anaerobic endurance and speed work in the program.
Consequences for athletes who overtrain [are] injuries. There is just no way they will make any progress on the field playing injured; and the worse case scenario is they will have to sit. The other consequence is getting mentally burnt out, and just not having fun any more, which could affect how they are viewed by their coach and other players, and how much playing time they will get.
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