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How footballers stay fit when they're not playing

There's much to learn from professional footballers when it comes to maintaining fitness. Lounge speaks to former ISL star Erik Paartalu to find out more

Erik Paartalu won the ISL with Bengaluru FC.
Erik Paartalu won the ISL with Bengaluru FC.

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With the Indian Super League (ISL) season ending on 20 March, football players will go on a long break before returning for what is predicted to be an earlier start to next season. For those players who won’t be involved in continental competitions (AFC Cup and AFC Champions League) or for the national team, it could mean a five-month break during which they must continue to keep their fitness levels high. 

But for Erik Paartalu, who played for Bengaluru FC for four seasons, and won the ISL in 2018-19, it’s not just about keeping fit, but about staying sharp, especially with the ball. “You don’t want to lose touch with the ball. Players, like everyone else, get caught up in the gym, or boxing, rowing, and running on the road. All this is irrelevant if you can’t change direction with the ball and on the grass with your boots on,” says the 35-year-old, who is fresh from a stint as pundit and expert for the ISL.

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The Australian believes that the traits that really get affected during off-season are spatial awareness, timing, and the ability to test oneself against fellow professionals. He says that not every player is equipped to know fitness science to mould their schedules accordingly and has come across many who don’t even put on their football shoes or touch a ball during their break.

He suggests that it would be realistic to expect players to use a facility if there was one, specifically for keeping fit during the off-season. He says that players from different levels and clubs could come together for a couple of weeks, and keep it minimalist with no sliding and tackles. “This is for no-contact work which can still make someone a better crosser of the ball, or help decision making when you’re at the byline, and especially on goalkeeping techniques. You see so many errors from keepers because they aren’t tested for 4-5 months and then thrust into matches,” he says. 

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Having played in Australia, China, Scotland, and Thailand among other countries, Paartalu thinks that players are very likely to spend money on an endeavour like this to keep themselves in shape for the season. “Players would rather come to this facility for a few weeks, learn about the science of fitness, or even money management and other skills. What would be a huge motivator is that you get to work with like-minded individuals. He says that Indian clubs doing tie-ups with foreign clubs should include pre-season camps so that players are exposed to how it’s done in other parts of the world.

“It’s not about getting obsessed with just football. Post season, it is necessary to take ten days off, stop thinking about the sport, and eat and drink whatever you want. But clubs are paying salaries during off-season in the hope that players will feel the necessity to use it to keep themselves sharp,” he says.

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After taking his ten days off, Paartalu would follow a cycle of training for four weeks before taking a complete break in the fifth week with the option to include light jogs and stretching. Workout weeks would see him hire a personal trainer and work on his game on the pitch twice a week. This would include ball work, plyometrics, sprinting, passing, and shooting. The other three days would be in the gym. “That would mean around 11 sessions a week. Even while you’re mid-season, you will get four sessions a week and then match day. In pre-season, players are normally put through 7-8 sessions a week,” he adds. 

A lot of this comes down to mentality. Motivation is a huge factor in sport and especially when you’re not in the thick of it. When the games are coming at you quickly, and when you’re with the team, it is easier to self-motivate. But footballers have to be careful about trying out new fitness activities so that it doesn’t affect their on-pitch performances. 

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Paartalu gives an example of how he ran a marathon during one off-season and it was not a decision he is proud of. “When I finished the marathon, I had  made my floppy ankles worse and my left hip was sore. I never really recovered from that for the full season. It was a big risk, but my mindset at that point was that this is a late stage in my career so I just wanted to be superfit. Plus covid happened and these ideas come to you when you need to fill time. I was clocking up way too many kilometres with my other fitness activities like F45 and even the gym. It was 30-40 km per week, it was too much.”

Paartalu’s advice to footballers who will finish their ISL season is to take care of how much they do, how they do it, and be smart about training in a way that always has some kind of spillover effect into what they need to be good at on the pitch.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.

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