The Physical Demands of Soccer with Jimmy Petruzzi

The Demands of Soccer

with Jimmy Petruzzi

Soccer incorporates periods of high-intensity exercise interspersed with periods of lower-intensity exercise. The physiological demands of soccer require players to be competent in several aspects of fitness, which include aerobic and anaerobic power, muscle strength, flexibility and agility.

Summary of energy systems

  • Anaerobic alactic – high intensity, duration 0 to 15 seconds, used in soccer sprinting, kicking, tackling


  • Anaerobic lactic – high moderate intensity, duration 15 to 120 seconds, used in sprinting, recovery, runs, heart rate of 180–190, (> 90% of maximum).


  • Aerobic – moderate to low intensity, duration 120 seconds plus, used in soccer whilst jogging, walking, duration of game, heart rate of 160–170, (80% of max)


VO2 max is a useful indicator of the intensity of any exercise and its impact on the body. VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen (in millilitres) one can use in one minute per kilogram of body weight. Those who are fit have higher VO2 max values and can exercise more intensely than those who are not as well conditioned.

Aerobic activities Anaerobic activities
walking most tackling and contact situations
walking backwards jumping
jogging accelerating and changing direction quickly
running at speeds less than 3/4’s pace running at speeds greater than 3/4’s pace


The game of soccer is essentially aerobic with intermittent anaerobic and alactic bursts of energy. Outfield players average 160bpm during soccer games and operate at 75–80% of their maximum oxygen uptake (VO2 max) which is comparable to marathon running.

However, soccer is not characterised by steady heart rates of 160bpm which are sustained for 90 minutes of play. On the contrary, heart rates are continually fluctuating depending on the nature of the activity the soccer player is performing.

The graph below shows the heart rate of a player over a three minute excerpt from a game.



Energy systems in soccer

The debate on conditioning for soccer players comes from the large distances a soccer player covers in a match. In the past coaches had a tendency to prescribe long, slow running during pre-season training.

But as we have seen above, during a game the intensity of exercise varies continually and fitness training should reflect this as realistically as possible. Training should also involve regular use of the ball as this will not only help develop the specific muscles involved in match play, but will also help improve technical and tactical skills and help keep players interested and keen. 

Coaches should consider that a game of soccer combines the ability to change direction, kick and jump with power (anaerobic alactic) and sprint (anaerobic lactic) in a game that lasts 90 minutes or more (aerobic).

It’s important to note that soccer players are continuously moving from anaerobic movements back to aerobic activity, which allows recovery to take place. As a consequence you have one dominant energy system in the body (aerobic) with the two other energy systems that enable higher intensity of play (anaerobic alactic and anaerobic lactic). Therefore training in all three energy systems is vital.

Interval training

Interval training  involves repetitions of high-speed/intensity work followed by periods of rest or low activity.

Interval training works both the aerobic and anaerobic systems and is considered one of the most effective methods of improving the physical conditioning of soccer athletes. There are many advantages to this system. Interval training allows the athlete to undertake a more intense workload over a longer period.

Here’s an example of a typical interval session for soccer:

  • Run 50 yards out and back in 18 seconds. Rest for 18 seconds. Go again. Do a total of 6 repetitions (reps). Rest for 2 minutes upon completion.
  • Run 40 yards out and back in 15 seconds. Rest for 15 seconds. Go again. Do a total of 8 reps. Rest for 2 minutes upon completion.
  • Run 30 yards out and back in 12 seconds. Rest for 12 seconds. Go again. Do a total of 10 repetitions. Rest for 2 minutes upon completion.
  • Run 20 yards out and back in 9 seconds. Rest for 9 seconds. Go again. Do a total of 12 reps.


The use of small-sided games for fitness

Traditionally coaches have used running sessions like the one described above for interval training. However, the use of small sided games is now more often recommended as an ideal training method for improving fitness and competitive performance in soccer.

It has also been suggested that match-specific small sided games can effectively improve the fitness of the cardio-vascular system whilst mimicking match-specific skill requirements.

Other advantages have been suggested, including increased player motivation, training the capacity to perform skills under pressure and a reduced number of training injuries.

Coaches such as Marcello Lippi, formerly of Juventus and winner of the 2006 World Cup with Italy are big believers in the positive effects of small sided games.

A good example of this can be seen in a training exercise which Lippi’s assistant at Juve, Jens Bansgbo, conducted with midfielder-turned-defender Gianluca Zambrotta.

The training exercise was for Zambrotta to play the ball from the edge of his own box to a midfielder, sprint, receive the ball inside the opposite half, then run with the ball, cut back inside and strike it with his left leg.


The training ratio was 5:1 (i.e. performing exercise activity for 50 seconds and resting for ten seconds) – high intensity specific to soccer. If you recall the World Cup quarter final between Italy and the Ukraine, Zambrotta scored from a very similar move to this activity. So, effectively he was feeling the benefits of high intensity training specific for soccer activity.

Sam Allardyce, Newcastle United manager, describes his 3 favourite practices:

“The first practice would be one of my favourites, which is crossing and finishing.

The second practice would be keep ball, building up to a small sided game, starting at 1v1, building up to 2v2, 3v3, 4v4, probably up to a maximum of 8v8.

The final practice is attacking team play, 11v6”.

Adapting these games to meet the physiological demands of soccer is important.

A typical session could be 4v4 on a pitch diameter which involves the players working aerobically. It can then be condensed to work the players anaerobically.

Such sessions can further be adapted into exercises with the ball, emphasising rest ratios to meet the physical demands of the game.

You might also consider a cool down playing head tennis etc.


Despite the fact that soccer is played by two teams of 11 players performing in an area of approximately 100m by 60m, during training it is common to reduce both the number of players on the pitch and the size of the pitch.

These small sided games are the most common drills used by coaches in soccer training.

Whereas in the past small sided games were mainly used to develop the technical and tactical abilities of the players, they are now being employed by amateur and professional teams as an effective tool to improve the physiological aspects of the game.

You will find examples of small-sided games throughout this book, and in all Soccer Coach publications.

It should always be your aim to provide players with a variety of training styles using the ball and soccer related games are great for keeping players motivated. However, sometimes performing specific running exercises can add a different kind of competitive element to training.

Examples of fitness exercises for soccer

Here are some examples of fitness exercises, with and without the ball, which take account of what we have said about the various energy systems important to soccer fitness.

Endurance and small sided games

Set up a pitch that is around 50 metres long and 30 metres wide. For a low-intensity endurance exercise play a 6v6 game in “free play” mode i.e. with no restrictions to the rules.

To create a moderate-intensity endurance game, limit the players to two touches, forcing them to play faster.

To make the game even faster with shorter sprints and shorter recovery periods, reduce the size of the field so that the game is more compact, forcing quicker reactions, decisions and running.

To make the game more demanding in terms of running volume, increase the size of the field.

For example, if you want a greater speed element to the game you could play 3v3 in an area 30 metres long by 20 metres wide.

And to make it even more demanding play 6v6 on a full-sized pitch.

You can take almost any basic small sided game and increase the intensity by adding restrictions such as two-touches, run 10 yards after each pass, all up in the attack etc. Restrictions can be combined, like two-touch, then run 10 yards after each pass.

The idea is to continuously insert restrictions on play to keep increasing the intensity. This will lead directly to improved endurance, speed, and agility.


300 yard Shuttle Run (20 metre course)

1. From the start point, run out 25 metres to a marker, turn and run back.

2. Repeat this 5 more times without stopping.

3. This is an endurance activity and should be performed at a 5:1 ratio (i.e. performing exercise activity for 60 seconds and resting for twelve seconds).

4. Repeat the entire exercise 8 times.



1. Using half of a pitch, begin by walking for 30 seconds.

2. Then jog for 30 seconds.

3. Then sprinting for 30 seconds.

4. Continue to do this sequence of walk, jog, sprint for a total time of 12 minutes.

5 metre repeats

1. From the start point, sprint out to a point 5 metres away, turn and sprint back.

2. Repeat this again, and then one more time.

3. This will equal 3 round trips (30 metres total distance for one turn). Do a total of 5 turns with 30 seconds recovery in between.

Box to box

1. From the goal line sprint to the 6 yard line and back.

2. Then sprint to the 18 yard line and back.

3. Then sprint to the half way line and back.

4. Then sprint to the end of the pitch and back.

5. The aim is to complete the exercise in under 60 seconds.

6. Then rest for 60 seconds.

Repeat three times.

Wind sprints

1. From the corner of the pitch sprint across the full length of the pitch.

2. Then jog across the pitch to the edge of the other corner.

3. Then sprint the full length of the pitch again.

4. Then jog across the pitch again.

5. The aim is to complete the exercise in under 60 seconds.

6. Then rest for 30 seconds.

7. Repeat three times.

Pitch length

1. Sprint the length of the pitch and back again.

2. Aim to complete in under 45 seconds.

3. Rest for 45 seconds.

4. Repeat 10 times.