Soccer as the Battle between Endurance and Speed. – Science of Running

Soccer as the Battle between Endurance and Speed. – Science of Running
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Looking at the world cup and soccer as the Battle between Endurance and Speed.

With the world cup wrapping up, I figured it was a good time to throw some soccer, or football for our non-American centric readers, into the mix. Soccer, believe it or not, was my first sport. I grew up playing soccer and at a reasonably high level for a pre-teen kid, doing the whole select/travel team soccer thing for a few years. Although most of my success was due to two things:

  1. Deciding it was a good idea to train myself to kick with both feet when I was around 10.
  2. The ability to sprint faster and run at that speed for a lot longer than anyone else we played against.

My soccer career came to an abrupt halt because I ran too fast. My HS coach said I could only do one if I wanted to be great at something, and he thought I could be great at running. Thankfully, I think I made the right choice in terms of talent maximization.

Enough of my trip down nostalgia lane, the point isn’t to reminisce about my could have been soccer career, instead, it’s to use soccer as a backdrop for conditioning. You see in sports like soccer, which have a heavy endurance and speed component, there’s always a debate on how much endurance work and how much speed work needs to be done.

I’ve long made the argument that if you want to understand athletic performance, talk to a track coach. Not an “athletic performance” coach or one of those guys at your local gym, but a track coach. Not sprint coach or distance coach, but someone who understands sprints to distance to throws to jumps.

Why? Because you have to understand all aspects of speed, power production, strength, endurance, and recovery from a training and technical standpoint. And from a training design standpoint, only swim coaches rival distance coaches in their love of training theory and design. And more importantly in their ability to understand how to put together interval sets and workouts that attack different adaptations (which is a lost art).

What’s the point?

It’s time for an ill-informed, distance runner biased, look at conditioning on the soccer pitch, or really any field at all.

Misunderstanding of What Endurance is:

Not surprisingly, a week or so ago when I commented on CrossFit suing Ohio State scientists and the NSCA over some study, I got a lot of backlash from crossfitters through tweets, emails, and other communication. While the critique isn’t the topic, one thing that stood out was the difference in viewpoint and understanding of what training was trying to accomplish.

A CrossFitter remarked that CF does a good deal of “high end aerobic” work and cited a workout called “Helen” as evidence. For those uninformed Helen is a workout that consists of a few 400s run at high intensity with “rest periods” of pull-ups done in between. The CF expert said that this has to be an aerobic workout because it took 8-10min at least to complete!  When I said that workout doesn’t work on high-end aerobic development, they scoffed and basically said I had no understanding of physiology.

Let’s put this in comparison though. If I were to show any distance coach the following workout for lets says a 1:50/4:05 miler.

5×400 in 56 with 90sec jog recovery. (or if you wanted to make it a direct comparison slow it to 60sec with pull up or pushups in between… doesn’t matter)

Would any distance coach in their right mind think that this is a high-end aerobic workout?

The answer is obviously No. Depending on how you classify your training, it would be some kind of specific 8/15 workout or speed endurance or whatever ever words you choose. But the workout takes roughly 10-11min to complete and the aerobic energy system provides most of the energy, so why isn’t this high end aerobic?!

The key here is understanding the difference between what the DEMANDS of the workout are and what the ADAPTATIONS from the workout are.

In this case, from a physiological point of view, we’re dealing with ever-increasing fatigue products, while the aerobic system is trying furiously to mop up the mess and take up more and more of the slack while we run low anaerobically.

The stimulus though is a pretty harsh and steady increase in fatigue while trying to maintain speed. Our body is slowly being calloused to maintain our ability to endure in such situations.

Our aerobic system isn’t getting better at working at the top end of its range and getting efficient at using oxygen to convert energy or to be efficient in its use. Instead, the main concern is dealing with ever-increasing fatigue and cleaning up the mess. It’s as if our aerobic system in this case is like us using a bucket to bail the water out of the sinking ship.

The point is. The demands and adaptation differ. There are different “kinds” of endurance and aerobic ability. The difference is obvious when you step back, but most don’t step back.

The Hatred of Endurance

Which brings me to one of the major points of this blog, it’s this fear of endurance that is creeping into the minds of performance experts and gurus around the world.

In the world of what I would call team sports with an endurance component, like soccer or hockey, there’s been a shift towards all HIIT (high-intensity interval training), all day. There’s this belief, largely because of a misunderstanding of how endurance and even aerobic abilities develop (and the fact we rely on crappy surrogate markers like VO2max to
represent endurance), that we can get the best of both worlds by doing HIIT. We can increase our aerobic abilities and our anaerobic ones at the same time!! Why wouldn’t we shift?

In the same sense, there’s been this fear of losing speed/power adaptations with endurance work. It’s personified with this Fiber Type conversion fear that I’ve discussed before.

Let’s look at a list of reasons why soccer players shouldn’t do endurance work provided by an article on soccer conditioning:

Long distance running wreaks havoc on sprint/power…

  • -Shifts to ST fiber domination
  • -Decrease in buffering capacity (and therefore decreased recovery ability from intense sprints) (*….yes I’m not making this up.)
  • -Increase in overuse injuries
  • -Interferes with strength and power development
  • -Shifts away from glycolytic enzymes..

That sounds horrible. Why would we want any of those things to occur! And in the original articles, they all had sciency names and citations!

Let’s flip it on it’s head though as a thought experiment. What happens if we look at speed/sprint/power adaptations effects on endurance ability

Sprint/Power wreaks havoc on endurance…

  • -Shifts to more FT fibers, so less efficient
  • -Can increase fiber size, decreasing mitochondria density!
  • -shifts to glycolytic enzyme increases
  • -Favors lactate production
  • -Decreases aerobic enzymes
  • -Increase risk in muscle strains/pulls/high force production injuries
  • -Higher likelihood of CNS related fatigue and overtraining

Oh my! That sounds horrible too! Let’s stop doing sprint/power/speed work for our distance runners!

Given the above reasons why sprint/power wreaks havoc on endurance development, should us distance coaches training someone for the 10k/half/marathon drop all sprint/power work from our training for fear of these hideous adaptations?

Of course not. It would be foolish.  We know that these things only occur if the balance is off.  If we do 4 days a week of pure sprint work and not enough mileage to counteract, then sure it would be a negative.  But we would be foolish to say that we shouldn’t do any speed/power training because of these adaptations.

What we’ve done is polarize the argument. We’ve only posted the negative effects of endurance or sprint training. Without posting the positive adaptations. In this way, we’ve used “science” to justify our own beliefs and model, not to help us make the decision on what and how much is needed.

Or as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed detective, Sherlock Holmes, stated

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.  Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

Hopefully, this thought experiment makes you second-guess this fear mongering just a bit. And you realize that it’s not about eliminating something because it will bring negative adaptations.

As Canova likes to say, “you lose what you don’t train.” His point is that for endurance athletes, most of the time it isn’t that the endurance work erodes all of our speed, it’s that we didn’t do enough to maintain the speed. We didn’t keep it.

It’s about balance. EVERYTHING brings positive and negative adaptations. What matters is the balance. You are trying to balance out these components to get the right fitness for your athletes and your sport or event. Each balance will differ.

Why do we have these conceptions?

Part of the reason, I believe is because that most people who have never experienced actual running, have this concept of long slow jogging burned into their brain. So they create this paradigm of extremes, where it’s either jogging or sprinting and nothing in between. It creates this either/or battle, that doesn’t really exist.

The second is, again maybe my personal bias, but the fact that most “conditioning coaches” come from the world of strength and conditioning. They got into it for the strength, power, speed, component, and endurance development is not their specialty. So they come at it from their own biased view and the learning process involves learning from other S&C specialists and courses.

As a quick aside, if you read endurance development in S&C books, magazines, etc. I liken it to being transported back in time with some fancy words thrown in. The methods are ones long sense moved past in the world of endurance development in track/running or even cycling. There’s a heavier reliance on things like VO2max development, glycolytic capacity, lactate tolerance, fat burning zones, and so on. I can’t help but feel that because of the lack of knowledge background on how endurance training methods developed, there’s no base of knowledge to draw upon, so they create a model heavy on the latest scientific nomenclature, without understanding how that applies to real-world training.  Essentially, without the knowledge of endurance and interval training development from coaches like Gerschler, Van Aaken, Igloi,Lydiard, Wilt, and so on, there’s nothing to build off of.


And finally, let’s get back to soccer.

As I said in the get-go, in team sports with an endurance component, there’s been a large shift towards HIIT all the time.

Soccer, by its nature is a mixed endurance sport. If you look at rough stats from the world cup, you’re looking at 90min of playing time where they cover 10-11km with 75-80% being spent at jogging/walking speeds 10% at medium speeds and 10% at high speeds. During the game, they might have 35-50 “sprints” depending on the position. Most of these are relatively short duration, probably 20m or so in length. (all stats are from FIFA just to give an idea. Example stats can be seen here.)

With some rough calculations, we can see that if we have 45 “sprints” that means once every 2min or so, you have a short sprint. So it’s like doing  45xshort sprints w/ probably 90sec-150sec recovery jog in between.

Now, in track, we don’t normally do workouts or even tests t see who is best at repeated 20-30m sprints. But let me ask the question, to put things in track perspective (with some
modifications), what event specialty would you think would be better at 45x30m sprint with 2min jog between?

100m guy? 200m? 400m? 800? Miler?
10k? marathoner? And so on.

Who do you think would hold the highest average speed across all of those

What if we put in a more traditional (yes this is a stretch) workout of 20x100m with 2min rest? Who does best? To me, it seems obvious that the best average time on either workout would be a middle distance runner, someone who is 8/15 type. If that makes sense, and I think it does from my track biased perspective, then one would assume similar training to that of a middle distance runner would bring about your best combination of speed, power, endurance, and speed endurance for a soccer player, with
obvious sport specific modifications.

It wouldn’t be the mostly speed/power of a sprinter or even a speed endurance, HIIT, focus of a 400m runner. So why train our soccer players with a similar speed/power/speed endurance focus? When their event demands require adaptations that allow for bursts of relatively high-speed output followed by rapid recover while running slow, over and over again.

To sum it up, I’ll post two slides I gave when looking at Endurance training at GAIN. The slides show how event demands don’t dictate, but instead, show us what might need to be developed. Then we have an array of stimuli we can use to adapt in those directions.



Before leaving this soccer talk, perhaps using an Igloi like method or understanding of intervals would give you the best-repeated sprint/endurance model. Igloi developed high-end aerobic endurance through clever manipulation of intervals more so than traditional
longer or even tempo running. It didn’t mean he forgot the other methods, they were still there, just not to the same degree as in normal programs.

Bottom Line

The point is that YES if we do too much endurance work, we will shift towards being more endurance orientated. Same as if we do too much “speed” work. As coaches, we all have seen the effects of messing up the balance.

But the point is because my 800m runner might need the ability to run 46 in the 400m, doesn’t mean that I say, oh gosh, no endurance work what so ever. I can’t have those FT fibers erode!

There are some sports, like American football where you have athletes who do 1-3sec bursts, that may need almost zero “endurance” work in the traditional sense. That makes sense.

But what doesn’t make sense, is the idea that we forgo all “endurance” in sports that have a heavy endurance component.

If David Rudisha can maintain the ability to run 45sec in the open 400m for example while training in Kenya with at least a decent endurance component, I’m sure some guy who does some moderate running, whether in the form of easy fartlek, tempos, or even recovery runs) a week during the offseason,  will be okay too. As long as you, like Rudisha, are counterbalancing with the necessary speed component to maintain or even improve that.

The takeaway is to understand your athlete and the even/sport demands. Don’t mimic the sport but train to be able to increase your ability to perform in the sport. I don’t go out and run 800m time trials every day because I’m mimicking the sport. I don’t even break it down and do 200’s at short rest to mimic it every day either. We’d all agree that would be ludicrous training in running. We know that we need everything from 60m flying sprints
and plyo/power work to easy recovery runs and relative longer aerobic work, all in the name of running two laps in under 1:50.

In team sports, the issue is much the same. You have a wide spectrum of intensities to choose from. For more endurance orientated sports like Soccer, the balance is shifted slightly more so that it makes sense to use much of the spectrum. If you are an offensive lineman, you might not use the extreme endurance side and the only time you do anything “slow” is as a teaching moment. That’s fine.

Know your sport. Know the demands. Know the athletes



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