In terms of my own training, I follow a year-round strength and conditioning program. I don't just do this for soccer, or even for my job as it is very important to me that I practice what I preach, but being strong and highly conditioned year round is highly crucial to both my physical and mental health, and is a key component of my lifestyle.
Over past few months when I did not have soccer (mid May to the end of July), I made a few slight tweaks to my training program, and this is the best my body has ever felt at the start of the season. Four games in five days, (and on horrible turf), and other than bad turf burn on my arm, and a blister, my body feels like a million dollars. While of course a properly designed strength and conditioning program will vary from athlete to athlete, the components that I discussed below will benefit all soccer players, and include the following:
When your season ends, it is very easy to give yourself a break from sprinting, and to tell yourself that you will get back on the field next week. Eventually, ''next week'' becomes the start of the season, your body will hate you, and your play will likely suffer. This might mean the difference between being in the starting XI, or even making the team. In order to get better at sprinting, both in terms of improving your actual ability to sprint, and improving your overall fitness level, the only way to accomplish this is to get out there and sprint. Initially, I kept my intensity at 80%, but as I progressed, I got back up to sprinting at 100%. I focused a lot on full field and half field sprints, and kept my work to rest ratio at 1:2 to 1:4. If your body and mind need a break at the end of your season, take 1-2 weeks off, but then get right back to it.
The big change I made this off-season was that I made sure to sprint on the turf 2 to 3 days per week, and did so consistently. Prior to this off-season, I would maybe spend 1 day sprinting on the field (and 1-2 on the Curve treadmill), and often less if the weather was not ideal. This off-season I held myself accountable and would not succumb to any excuses. It is important to note, if all of your practices and games are on grass fields, there is no reason for you to sprint on turf as it is not a very forgiving surface. However, if the majority of your practices and games are on turf fields, I recommend that you sprint on turf as your body needs to adapt to the surface, and there is no better way to achieve this than being on turf. Even if you are sprinting on a grass field or a treadmill (I will never run on cement), it is not the same thing as being on the turf.
I also highly recommend that you opt for your cleats instead of runners, as your body needs to adapt to the less stable, less cushiony, and flatter (in terms of heel to toe drop) nature of your cleats. Otherwise the muscles, connective tissue, and joints in your lower legs and feet will not know what hit them when you resume playing.
Soccer is a sport that is not played in a straight line, or at the same speed, at least if you are playing the game properly. You need to be able to run forward, backwards, sideways, and be explosive and agile. In addition to my regular sprints, I made sure to include lots of different multi-directional running and explosive movements in my program, and at close to full speed.
If you want to perform at a high level and stay healthy, the bottom line is that your hamstrings and glutes need to be strong. I used to spend an equal amount of time focusing on my quads and hamstrings. However, this off-season I decided to make a few changes to my program. Rather than focus on squatting and lunging based movements for one workout, and hinging/posterior chain for the other, I am now doing 2 leg workouts per week that incorporate squatting, lunging, hinging, and accessory work, and I am placing a much greater emphasis on my hamstrings. I have been doing glute hamstring raises, Bosu GHR's, banded roller curls, in addition to my deadlifts 2 days per week instead of my usual one day, and I am placing slightly less of an emphasis on my quads. As for my glutes, I have actually cut down on my overall volume and am in maintenance mode, as my glutes are always very strong, and my hamstrings were definitely my weakest link. Have I ever noticed a difference, both in terms of the hypertrophy in my hamstrings, my power, and also the health of my overall body. I do recommend that most athletes place a large emphasis on training their glutes, in addition to their hamstrings.
If you are playing any sport where you are required to run, jump, stride, plant, and explode, and in all directions, it's absolutely crucial that your feet and lower legs are strong and stable. In fact, everyone should make this a priority. I do at least one sled workout per week (or a minimum 3 sets if I am pressed for time). I will also do some eccentric heel drops (in this video both concentric and eccentric) and foot strengthening exercises at least one day per week as both of these exercises are integral in helping prevent Achilles tendonitis, chronic calf tightness, plantar fasciitis, and other issues in the lower legs and feet. My feet and lower legs have never felt better, and despite the fact that I am on rock hard turf. In my first season back after the 3 years I was forced to take off to sort out my rib issues, the one area of my body that was not prepared for the hard turf and soccer specific movements was my feet and lower legs, and I developed some pretty bad tendonitis in my tibialis posterior muscle that lasted for half a season. It was not fun, and I definitely learned my lesson.
Soccer is a game of power. It is a virtual certainty that the majority of the top players are also the most powerful athletes. On one of my lower body days, I have been focusing more on explosive movements. On this day, I will also include some upper body and full body power exercises. Have I ever noticed a difference when I am on the field. If you are serious about being a difference maker on the field, it is important that you incorporate some power exercises into your program.
Everyone who knows how I play the game, knows that I like to head the soccer ball, and a lot. I have been this way since day 1. The more I get to head the ball, whether it's a 50/50 challenge, a diving header, or attacking a corner kick, the better. When I first came back to play, my deep neck flexors weren't strong enough so after my first few games I had a very stiff neck. For the past few seasons, I have made sure to do one neck strengthening exercise 2-3 days per week. This keeps my neck feeling good, and also helps prevent concussions. All soccer players should make sure that their necks are stable and strong. Here are 3 great neck strengthening exercises by Chris Gorres.
When the pelvis and spine are stable, not only will you have a healthier body and less nagging issues, you will be able to generate significantly more power and control with both your upper and lower body. This will allow you to strike the ball with more power and precision, go into your tackles with more force, get into open spaces at a much faster rate, jump much higher to win balls in the air, and so much more. Here is one of my favourite glute activation exercises, and one of my favourite core stability exercises. I make sure to do them (or others) at least a few days per week and I will usually do a glute activation exercise before I do any lower body training and before my conditioning. I will usually finish each workout with 1-2 core stability exercises.
In order for the body to move properly, it is imperative that the thoracic spine, hips and ankles are mobile. Before I do any workout, I will make sure that my ankles and thoracic spine are moving well. Here are a few of my favourite mobility exercises. The first is a basic mobility exercise for the ankles, and the second is for the thoracic spine.
Now that I have given you some key components that will help you take your fitness and soccer specific performance to the next level, it's up to you to get the ball rolling, pun intended. Do not let your play on the field suffer because you are not willing to put in the time to develop the requisite levels of strength and conditioning that will help improve your play, and keep you healthy. As I know from personal experience, there is nothing less enjoyable than being unfit and trying to play (notice how I say trying). Lastly, the term ''soccer legs'' is a huge misnomer because unless you are blessed with good genetics, soccer legs are accomplished by strength training, not by playing soccer.