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What we can learn about fitness from footballers

Footballers don't just need to remain fit while they're playing, but also during the off season. Here's how they do it

ATK Mohun Bagan players celebrate after winning the ISL.
ATK Mohun Bagan players celebrate after winning the ISL. (Sudipta Banerjee)

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The Indian Super League (ISL) season ended last month with ATK Mohun Bagan lifting the ISL trophy after beating Bengaluru FC on penalties in the final. After a hard fought season, where every player put in more than 100% week after week, one would imagine they would relax and rest up during the off season. However, for the modern footballer , there’s no room for any lapse in focus or fitness. While gaining match fitness can only be achieved by playing the game at the highest level, footballers are expected to maintain their fitness even when they’re not playing.

During the season the team’s strength and conditioning coach carefully draws up a training, nutrition, hydration and recovery plan to the smallest detail for every player. During the off season, it is up to the footballers to choose how they plan to maintain or improve their fitness levels. Team India and ATK Mohun Bagan midfielder Glan Martins, for one, signs up with a personal trainer for the off season to stay in shape. He also stays focused on getting the right nutrition. 

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Martins works out four days a week. “When the season is on we can’t lift heavy or do too many external workouts of our own. It’s during the off season that I work on gaining muscles and strength. My trainer draws up a plan and I follow that. I go to the gym up to four times a week and then play football with my friends on the weekends just to make sure I am in touch with the game,” he says. 

The focus on fitness during the off-season is even more important in the Indian footballing context because the professional league season is short: It lasts for just six months, compared to 9-10 months in other parts of the world. Such a long break from playing at the highest level is not good for any footballer. This makes it even more important for Indian footballers to pay extra attention to their fitness levels, says Martins. He takes inputs from ATK Mohun Bagan’s strength and conditioning coach for the off season, and ensures that his personal trainer understands the specific needs of a footballer.

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The off season also gives players the opportunity to indulge in fitness routines and activities of their own choosing, like running long distances, cycling, or lifting heavy weights. The players already load their lower body a lot during training and game time, says FC Goa strength and conditioning coach Joel Dones. “So, they need to take the load off their legs and let them recover. They cannot just get up and go for a long run or a cycle ride when the season is in play. These activities put more load on the legs and that hampers their recovery, which affects their performance.” 

Footballers also cannot lift heavy during the season because gym sessions are followed by team training and they cannot show up feeling fatigued. So, it is during the off season that footballers can enjoy their runs, bike rides, long swims and heavy lifting and maintain a high levels of fitness at the same time. 

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

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