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Sports conditioning: Football

Keeping players fit has become increasingly important for football clubs, who now play up to 50 games a season. Tom Walker looks at the ways clubs are investing in sports conditioning

by Tom Walker, Leisure Media | Published in Sports Management Jul Aug 2017 issue 132
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A focus on sports conditioning and recovery helped turn Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy into an England striker / PHOTO: © PA IMAGES
A focus on sports conditioning and recovery helped turn Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy into an England striker/ PHOTO: © PA IMAGES

It might detract somewhat from the romanticism of it, but it is now a well-documented fact that Leicester City’s fairytale Premier League title win in 2016 had a large amount of science behind it. Leicester’s innovative approach to sports medicine and meticulous player conditioning resulted in the club suffering fewer injuries than ever before during the season and this in turn meant that then-manager Claudio Ranieri was able to pick his best 11 players on all but three occasions during the 38-game campaign.

Leicester’s fitness team have since revealed some of the secrets that helped the club pull off one of the biggest shocks in sporting history. These included the use of a cryotherapy ice chamber to aid rehabilitation, offering players beetroot juice to “improve their sprint performance” and the introduction of innovative new fitness tech – such as NordBords, which increase speed by strengthening hamstrings.

Leicester’s success shows how important sports conditioning has become in modern football. In Leicester’s case, it even helped transform a non-league journeyman like Jamie Vardy into an England striker. But apart from beetroot juice, what else are clubs doing to ensure their biggest assets – the players – are maintained and prepared for action?

Suspension training and other functional training methods have become popular with Premier League football clubs because they allow physical conditioning that prepares muscles and joints for real-life movements and the demands of a football match. As players use their own bodyweight to build strength, instead of static weights, they are able to more accurately mirror the physical requirements of a game.

Suspension also helps to develop a player’s balance, coordination and joint stability, potentially reducing the risk of injury.

Premier League club Manchester City first trialled the TRX Suspension Trainer in January 2011 and the club soon integrated it into its existing sports conditioning programme. It continues to use TRX equipment in club fitness regimes, bolstered with tailored TRX training programmes, which are designed to sustain health, on-pitch performance and elite fitness levels.

At the club’s Carrington Training Centre, players spend about three to five hours per week training off the pitch, performing a variety of different drills, including speed work and plyometric training, as well as classic, old-school circuit training. The equipment is also used for abs/core workouts and upper-body conditioning. Other clubs to have incorporated TRX into their conditioning work include Liverpool FC.

Using low-impact training is a useful way to ensure athletes returning from injury mitigate the risk of re-aggravating their injuries. One training aid designed to help players to exercise at full pace without putting a maximum load on their joints too early is the innovative Aerofloor training surface, created by UK-based company SAQ.

Aerofloor utilises high-grade fabrics and what SAQ calls a “controlled energy return technology” to provide an energy giving and absorbing training surface. Made of a dual-layered material, filled with tens of thousands of fibres, the surface reduces the load on muscles and joints by providing controlled rebound qualities. It is currently used by a number of leading Premier League football clubs in their sports conditioning needs – including Manchester United – as well as a host of elite rugby and cricket clubs.

The product is also being used by leading European clubs, including Hungarian champions Ferencváros TC. According to Peter Friar, Ferencváros’ head physiotherapist, the surface is a perfect tool to ease injured players back into training – and has been especially useful for cutting the recovery times of older players.

Friar says Aerofloor was crucial in the rehabilitation of Ferencváros captain and Hungarian national team star Zoltan Gera who, at 37 years of age, suffered an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury for the second time in his career in 2015. Gera returned from the potentially career-threatening injury in record time, thanks mainly to him being able to use Aerofloor to keep up his cardiovascular and match fitness, while avoiding putting heavy loads on his injured knee.

“When a seasoned professional football player like Zoltan Gera tells you the absolute difference between his first ACL injury rehabilitation and his second identical injury was the Aerofloor, as a physiotherapist and sports fitness professional, you sit up and take notice,” Friar says.

After being nurtured back to health using the Aerofloor, Gera returned to the Hungarian national team and became the oldest player to score in the European Championship last year (2016) at the age of 38.

As well as the use of innovative, one-off training aids for particular exercise requirements, clubs still have a need for well-planned fitness suites and gyms in order to keep their players in prime condition. In order to ensure club gyms are fit for purpose and have the best technology available, there’s now a trend for clubs to agree partnership deals with suppliers and equipment providers.

One of these clubs is Premier League champion Chelsea FC, which signed a partnership deal with Italy-based supplier Technogym in July 2014. Since then, the two have worked closely together in order to ensure the Chelsea fitness and conditioning team is kept up-to-date and has access to the latest exercise technologies at its gym.

“The kitting out of the Chelsea gym is very much a joint effort, based on the club’s requirements and our expertise,” says Conrad Betton, Technogym UK’s key account manager. “We find out their exact needs to understand what they want and then suggest new products that we think would work for them.”

As an example of how the partnership works, Betton points to the recent installation of the SkillMill – a non-motorised treadmill that combines power, speed, stamina and agility training – at the club’s Cobham Training Centre. “We identified that Chelsea’s sports conditioning team could benefit from the SkillMill for its rehabilitation purposes,” Betton says.

“It can be used to work on both core and leg muscles, as the resistance lever of the SkillMill allows controlled and measurable movements. It also has a tracking function to assess personal workout parameters and results.” The SkillMill was installed in 2016 and is now in active use.

Betton adds that it isn’t just the clubs and players that benefit from the partnerships either. “Partnerships with elite sport teams are beneficial to both sides of the partnership. The experience of working with champion sport teams has taught Technogym a huge amount about the requirements and needs of elite athletes,” he says. “It has helped shape some Technogym equipment as we know it.”

Another club benefitting from a partnership with a fitness supplier is Edinburgh-based club Hibernian, which earlier this year secured its return to the top flight of Scottish football. The club’s head of sports science and fitness, Craig Flannigan, built up a relationship with equipment supplier Origin Fitness, which was formalised with a partnership deal in 2015. Since then, Origin has enhanced the fitness equipment provision at Hibernian’s Ormiston training facility in East Lothian.

A recent project at Ormiston is the introduction of an indoor cycling space, used by the team on Sundays for an active recovery session after Saturday’s game. Following Origin’s advice, the club installed a set of Spinner Black Belt NXT bikes along with Spinning Computers, which measure heart rate, calories burned and distance travelled.

“The addition of the cycling studio will assist in creating a performance culture within the club,” says Flannigan. “Our weekly training programmes vary depending on the training phase (pre-season or in-season), the number of games in the week and the individual’s training status. For instance, after the match on Saturday, the recovery process will commence immediately.”

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