Professional football players should train intensely during the season

Health and Wellness 18. dec 2022 4 min Associate Professor Morten Hostrup Written by Kristian Sjøgren

Many football coaches fear that high-intensity interval training during the season will overload their players and increase the risk of injury and therefore completely avoid it once the season has started. New research shows that professional football players can easily train intensely during the season if they do this properly. The researchers behind the study have also created a guide on how to do this.

The ability of modern professional footballers to perform repeated high-speed runs for 90 minutes results from many hours on the training pitch, where they practice high-intensity running over and over again.

Top-level football coaches normally intensify the training in the run-up to the season. This may mean the difference between finishing fourth in the league or lifting the cup as the top of the table.

Nevertheless, many football coaches do not continue the high-intensity interval training when the season is underway, and the players therefore often experience a mid-season dip in form. The coaches fear that the intensified training during the season might overload the players and cause injuries, so they would rather skip the training than risk playing without a striker the following Saturday or Sunday.

But intensified training during the season is possible, thereby giving the players greater capacity to both chase opponents and sprint away from them. A new study confirms this and also shows how professional football coaches should incorporate intensified training during the season without ending in a flurry of injuries.

“Although many studies have examined high-intensity interval training, how to optimally use it during the season in professional football has not been well documented. This is easy enough when the season has not started and you need to build up fitness, but the fitness can continue to be developed during the season if you do it properly,” explains a researcher behind the study, Morten Hostrup, Associate Professor, Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports, University of Copenhagen.

The research has been published in Sports Medicine.

Modern football is very demanding

Professional football is constantly evolving. Coaches such as Pep Guadiola and Jürgen Klopp have pioneered a style of play in which the players must constantly sprint after the ball or the opponents in both offence and defence throughout an entire match.

The proportion of short, intensive sprints in modern football is therefore higher than ever.

This style of football requires players to train to sprint intensely. As mentioned, this is easy enough before the season starts, but the fatigue from many training sessions and sometimes two games a week increases the concern that high-intensity training may result in a greater risk of injury than the coaches are prepared to accept.

“This type of training can be very demanding, and a justified fear is that some types of high-intensity training can cause injury. But you must not adopt the polar opposite and not carry out this type of training at all,” says Morten Hostrup.

Interval training once or twice weekly is sufficient

The researchers created a plan for how professional football players can sensibly perform high-intensity training without increasing the risk of injury by obtaining data from around 30–40 studies of interval training among elite football players.

The literature indicates that performing high-intensity training during the season is both possible and enhances performance without increasing the risk of injury.

In fact, not much is required before the players benefit from the adaptation and can perform better on the pitch. One to two training sessions per week of 15–20 minutes each are enough to achieve a noticeable effect without unduly straining the body.

“We have found that this should be done incrementally, adding a little more as the training weeks progress. Some weeks you can run one to two training sessions, whereas in periods with only a few games you might increase the training to two to three weekly sessions with high-intensity training for 15–20 minutes,” explains Morten Hostrup.

Better fitness results in fewer mistakes

Morten Hostrup says that the training sessions must be related to the game on the pitch. Therefore, getting footballers to train intensively on an exercise bike does not help to the same extent.

To achieve the best results, players must train in situations similar to those in which they need to perform in matches. These include sprinting with the ball, in transition between activities and running backwards at high speed.

If the players and coaches are careful to hit the right intensity in training, they can also look forward to being more fatigue resilient when they sprint goalwards past the opponents, being able to perform more high-intensity runs and sprints during the match and improving ball handling.

“Players who are not in good shape make more mistakes in ball handling as the match progresses and fatigue sets in. Therefore, performing this kind of training in a structured way during the season provides not only physical benefits but technical benefits, which really means a lot in high-intensity matches. An exercise bike does not produce the same neuromuscular effect,” says Morten Hostrup.

Huge potential in women’s football

In conjunction with the article in Sports Medicine, the researchers have created a guide for how professional football coaches can implement high-intensity training in their daily routines without having to worry about the risk of player injuries.

The guide, which has already been downloaded many times, contains recommendations for types of training but also information on how rapidly the body recovers after the different types of training.

After some types of training, the body is ready for more training the next day, whereas others require 3 days before the muscles and joints are ready again. These types of training should not be scheduled on Thursday if you have an important match on Saturday.

“Further, we do not see any reduced demand for high-intensity running in modern professional football. That is why there is so much focus on how to best to incorporate this type of training so that players continue to improve throughout the season. The guide we have created can help them do this,” explains Morten Hostrup.

He elaborates that another very interesting perspective is women’s football, in which high-intensity sprinting has not been incorporated to the same extent as in men’s football.

“There seems to be great potential in women’s football, since the players’ anaerobic capacity especially seems capable of being improved. Research on how to do more of this type of training in women’s football is important so that improvements can translate directly into results on the pitch,” concludes Morten Hostrup.

Performance adaptations to intensified training in top-level football” has been published in Sports Medicine. The review article has been produced as part of the Novo Nordisk Foundation grant to Team Denmark for its Training Strategies to Prepare for Competitions research network.

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