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How footballers train for maximum fitness

While watching the FIFA World Cup, have you wondered how the footballers remain fit through the year? Lounge speaks with experts to find out

Even at the age of 35, Lionel Messi remains an extremely fit athlete.
Even at the age of 35, Lionel Messi remains an extremely fit athlete. (AFP)

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It would be nearly criminal to drag anyone’s attention away from football right now. After all, the world’s biggest football show reaching its climax on Sunday in the grand finale of the Fifa World Cup. But have you ever wondered how hard these footballers have to work to be able to even just make it to this stage? Most would just dismiss it with a generic response of “a whole lot”. Let’s find out what that “whole lot” includes. 

It is not just footballing drills, skills and tactics that the players have to work on. That is an integral part of the training. But the modern footballer has to equally disciplined with their bodies. They have to put in a lot of time in the gym and training ground working on their muscles, speed, change of directions, endurance and reaction time. “Strength and physical conditioning are a must to be ready to perform properly in football,” says Gorka Azkorra, FC Goa’s assistant coach. Azkorra has previously worked with the youth teams at Athletic Bilbao and has played in the La Liga and UEFA Cup. Another former La Liga player and current FC Goa skipper, Edu Bedia agrees with Azkorra and says, “In modern football a strength and physical training coach is extremely important… I’d say as important as the head coach.”  

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All players involved in World Cup play for their clubs and all levels of club football have a proper off season lasting anywhere between two to six months. However, for the modern professional footballer, training never stops, especially in the off season. Bedia, who is one of Indian Super League’s longest serving foreign players, says during the summer break he makes sure he works out five days a week, interspersed with two rest days over the weekend. His workouts include running, stretching, strength training, all designed in consultation with the club’s strength and conditioning coach Joel Dones. 

Bedia’s club mate and India midfielder Glan Martins also has a busy off season routine. Martins works with a sports trainer who prepares his workouts keeping in mind his game, strengths, weaknesses and injury history. Martins works out four days a week with weights during this period and plays football with friends once a week on the weekends just so that he doesn’t get too rusty. Things pick up during the pre-season and workout sessions become more intense. “Before the football season kicks off we have to work on our muscles. First our muscles need to be prepared to bear the load of a top level football game that lasts 90 minutes. Only after that do we start playing football,” says Martins. 

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Once the season kicks off, Bedia says he cuts out the weights from his strength training routine because of the load of the football games. Martins also reduces use of weights once the season starts and games come thick and fast. Dones advises his players against recreational workouts such as long distance running, because a footballers feet are already doing a lot of work and they need to recover in the gap between the games. However, modern footballers are also encouraged to have their own strength routine apart from what the coaches design for them. “This is important because they understand that strength is a fundamental quality of a professional footballer and each person has different necessities and they have to attend to them,” says Azkorra.

 Elite footballers train keeping the match day in mind. If there is a week-long gap between games, they train five days and get one day of rest. “In every training session we try to include both football drills and strength training to optimize the time and because they are not separate aspects for us. But we have to control the loads and adapt the drills depending how close we are to the match,” explains Azkorra. 

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However, all the training in the world won’t help unless the footballers remain focused on the game. During the season or a tournament, footballers must be focused on their performance on the pitch and their personal time must be oriented around that, says Azkorra. “You can’t forget that football is a game played with the brain and the ball and understanding the game is the most important.” 

The entire team also works with a team of game analysts, who not only help each player understand their duties and performance in a game, but also brief them on the strengths, weaknesses, playing style and a lot more about the opponents. Every game is different and we must adapt to the opponent and find the best way to win each match, says Azkorra, adding that they are constantly analysing every of the game. “It's our obsession,” he says. 

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness

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