Very often I hear that conditioning training in football ( and other sport games) should be “game-specific” thus it is stupid for a player to run laps as this do track-and-field athletes. Coaches have to develop player’s endurance with the small-side games (SSG) or, if the more structured workload is needed, giving shuttle-running. Well, it is not that I am strongly against shuttles, and definitely I am a big fan of SSG, however I still consider “straight” running as a useful form of conditioning in sports games. So, in this post, I want to defend it.
So what is the problem?
The problem here is typical for conditioning training and testing in sports games — a trade-off between game-specificity and quality-specificity.
The most game-specific exercise or test is …a game. However due to the game is a mix of qualities, it is pretty hard to separate one of them to emphasise its development or for testing it.
For the purpose of this discussion, we can split factors affecting every endurance activity in two groups (for more detailed discussion about models of endurance see article).
We can call the first group, “universal-physiological” factors. It includes oxygen uptake, fuel reserves, metabolite clearance, and tolerance capacities. Whatever sport you are doing, if it demands some level of endurance, it would be good to have a reasonable level of these abilities. For example, on average, high-level footballers have around 60-65 ml/kg/min VO2 max, which is pretty good among the general athletic population.
The second group may be called “running economy,” though it does not necessarily refer to running.
This means how efficiently an athlete is performing an endurance exercise.
It is obvious that it is sport-specific.
Some athletes may be very well built for a particular activity and not for another.
Perhaps Mo Farrah beats Messi on various endurance distances not only due to superior physiological qualities but additionally because he is better built for distance running ( e.g., has relatively long and slim legs) and has better running technique.
However Messi may be happy to play 1 vs 1 game against Mo. And not only because he is better with the ball but because he probably will be superior in accelerations, decelerations and change of directions (COD) as well ( to some extent due to relatively low centre-of-mass).
Thus the main argument for apologists for sport-specific conditioning training is that you should give exercises for which player is built for and develop sport-specific running economy together with physiological qualities. For footballers, they argue, it is SSG, repeated sprints and shuttles.
Well, there are two buts, however.
First, it may be exactly the specificity that coaches would like to avoid. This is because accelerations decelerations, sprints, and CODs induce mechanical strain on joints and ligaments and cause exercise-induced muscle damage. Although this may be necessary for training adaptation, the player may already receive more than enough of this kind of load during his/her technical-tactical training. Indeed, almost all football exercises, include these components and we sometimes need to save players from additional strain while developing their physiological qualities.
Secondly, coaches may wish to avoid sport-specificity because they want to achieve quality-specificity.
For example, the aim of the workout is cardio adaptation and I give interval training 4x 4 min at 95% vVO2 max with 2 min passive rest. I need more or less stable and steady increase in HR with optimal stroke volume and relatively constant running economy. Of course, I cannot completely avoid other influences like, for example, metabolites accumulation, however the aim is to find a “better deal” (fashionable expression in Britain nowadays) for emphasising cardiovascular load. Thus I want to keep all irrelevant influences at a minimum. Intermittent activities, including turnings, accelerations, and decelerations, may bring confounding and difficult to account effect.
Should Messi run laps?
Well, it depends on whether he and his conditioning coach are satisfied with some of his physiological qualities (e.g.VO2max).
It is very important to understand that running laps in football is the exercise for developing needed physiological qualities, not the aim itself.
There is no need for a player to fit some standards in the distance running. This training should be individual. A coach may need differently structured running exercises for players with different abilities.
A significant advantage of straight runnings is that it is easy to control the volume and intensity. It has less technical components, and it is less the mix of qualities than SSG and shuttles. Thus it is perhaps easier to associate changes in result with the change in particular quality.
A disadvantage is that they are probably boring and psychologically demanding. Many players don’t like it. A good result in running laps to a great extent depends on athlete constitution. Thus not all good players build for efficient distance running, and it is not fair to compare players against each other in running tests. Game is not just running. Instead, compare player against him/herself. Explain to them what do you want to improve and make them your allies.
Can we develop everything you need in SSG?
Without doubts, small-side games are the most game-specific method for conditioning. Coach can target conditioning together with improving agility, technical, and tactical skills.
Games create great emotional environment, and players are not bored.
The problem is to control the workload and to target specific physiological parameters.
Game is game and intensity in it fluctuates significantly. The same game may be very demanding for one and easy for another. It demands the mix of qualities, and it is difficult to separate and emphasise something particular needed. However, game allow unlimited modifications; thus, coach’s creativity can improve its benefits and overcome some limitations for conditioning.
Are shuttles football-specific form of exercise?
Many sports practitioners argue that shuttles are more specific for sports games than laps.
This is because shuttles include accelerations, decelerations, and CODs.
In my opinion, shuttle-running is not game-specific. Pre-determent, 180 degrees change of direction in shuttles has little common with unpredictable CODs during the game. Accelerations and decelerations in shuttles are not maximal but rather optimal exclusively for shuttles. In games, they are different (see the picture below).
Three-frames pictures of predetermined 180 degree COD in shuttle-ran (lower picture) and unpredictable same-degree turn during real game ( Nani is chasing Messi).
In my opinion, shuttle-running is a form of circuit training; it is a mix of distance running, and strength needed for decelerations and accelerations. You may add jumps, push-ups, etc. if you want. As every circuit training, it may be beneficial overall, but it is not quality-specific training.
If you want to develop specific physiological qualities, shuttles bring confusion without providing additional benefits.
For developing universal physiological qualities, straight/laps running is the best method.
SSG is the most game-specific method for conditioning.
Shuttle-running is a form of circuit training, and it is not exceptionally game-specific.
Photo: Mica Asato