In-Season Need-to-Do’s

In-season programming is a juggling act of so many different physical components, that I sometimes get dizzy just thinking about where to fit them all into the training week. There’s more and more information out there about what you should be doing with your athletes, but if you try to pack it all into your physical development plan, you’ll create a fine mess which will be reflected in your athlete’s performances.

Vern Gambetta talks about the three types of training To Do’s:  Want To Do, Nice To Do, and Need To Do. If you commit to at the very least getting the Need-to-do’s in every week then no matter what else happens you know you’re covering the essentials. It’s too easy to get side-tracked by the fancy minutia at the expense of your bread and butter. Your Need-to-do’s should reflect your training philosophy; as we know, if something is worth doing it is worth doing consistently, not in drips and drabs. The Pareto Principle seems to be applied to every life-situation and it’s granny these days but I’m sure it is relevant here too:  20% of your efforts and resources account for 80% of your results. Apply this principle to your strength and conditioning program to figure out what you Need-to-do’s are.



    Strength training

Despite everything we know about the benefits of strength training for sports, I still find myself having to convince some athlete’s to commit to getting stronger. The purpose of strength training for football is not to build muscle, that is merely a potential side effect. Building strength will develop your tissue’s load bearing capacity, when you strengthen your joints in the appropriate manner, and this will help you avoid injuries. Building explosive strength will allow you to apply more force into the ground as you run; building strength in the trunk and core will help you effectively transmit force through the kinetic chain.  Someone’s perception of what strength is will determine the importance they attach to it in preparation for their sport. The first mission of a Strength and Conditioning coach is to get his or her athletes to buy into the value of strength training.

Now we have a busy in-season, with fixtures every week, and sometimes two. This presents the challenge of getting in a regular strength session without inducing soreness leading into games. Of course, everyone is different in the way they respond to loading up in the gym. Typically, we will follow a lower/upper split. The lower body session fits in best after the big team practice session of the week, which is usually followed by a day off. Then the upper body session can fit in on a Friday,  leaving two days recovery for a Sunday game. Recently, with certain players we have introduced a neuromuscular priming hit on the Friday session, to include one heavy lower body lift and a couple of explosive movements. I think the key is to figure out what works for each player, stick with it long enough to see progression, then add variation to keep things interesting and avoid plateaus.

In my last blog post I gave my thoughts on how I define strong in a sporting context, and how strength in movement is what really counts. It is a mistake to judge strength training on the stereotypical gym-rat who could barely run the length of himself. As long as we commit to the following two Need-to-Do’s we can take the strength we build in the gym and transfer it to the explosive demands of our sport.


    Speed training

Speed mechanics and the aforementioned strength training are two very important considerations in our quest to build faster athletes. But what we can’t forget is that perhaps the simplest and most important action to this end is to run as fast as possible. You won’t get faster by running at sub-maximal speeds. At a CPD event on speed development for football, Paul Brice of the English Institute of Sport mentioned that sometimes the best speed session you could do is to have players pair up and race against each other. The innate competitiveness of elite athletes is a great characteristic in this instance.

One of the most useful metrics we can gauge from GPS data is High Speed Running. The average distance of high speed running (18.1 to 21km/h) covered in a match during the 2011 Women’s World Cup was 395 metres. Similar to the 2015 Women’s World Cup.

If our athletes are required to perform at higher intensities in competition than they are exposed to in training, not only will they be outperformed by opponents who are better physically prepared, but they will be at risk from injury. Thus doing maximal sprints regularly in training will provide a protective mechanism as well as performance benefits. It can be surprising to see that even the highest intensity session of the week does not necessarily reach big numbers in high speed running metres. An easy way to get this exposure to high speed running is by adding some 10 to 30 metres sprints. It does serve to be cautious with the longer distances, as some athletes tolerate them better than others. We usually start with a couple of 10’s, then by a couple of 20’s, and finishing with three 30’s (or 20’s if we’re being careful).

Football coaches like the integration of physical work with football, and there is definitely merit to this. If it helps the athletes take the physical benefits gained from isolated work and apply it in the sport-specific setting then all the better. But in this context, I prefer to let the athletes focus on one thing: running flat out with some simple cues.

    Power application

Power is that raw expression of athleticism that jumps out at us when we see it on the playing field. Powerful athletes possess a capacity for explosive bursts of movement that can devastate opponents. It is largely genetically determined with elite sprint and power athletes known to carry working copies of the ACTN3 gene which normally produces a protein that regulates the function of fast muscle fibres(23 and Me genetic testing can tell you if you carry this gene). That being said, the appropriate training stimulus can certainly improve application of power.

Asisat Oshoala (Arsenal Ladies). Arsenal Ladies Training Session. Arsenal Training Ground. London Colney, Herts, 10/3/16. Credit : Arsenal Football Club / David Price.

Arsenal Ladies’ Asisat Oshoala definitely has a couple of copies of the ACTN3 gene stashed away. Credit : Arsenal Football Club / David Price.


We will look to develop power in two ways:

  1. Rate of Force Development (RFD)
  2. Elastic explosiveness

RFD relates to how quickly we can produce force from a standstill and we will primarily work on this quality through explosive strength training and plyometric exercises and olympic lifts for the proficient lifter. Simultaneous and explosive extension of the hip, knee, and ankle joints is characteristic of the clean and snatch but we are not limited to these movements alone to express triple extension. Box jumps, hurdle hops, broad jumps, med ball overhead throws and of course acceleration sprints will also get us there.

Increases in muscle and tendon stiffness through plyometric exercises will help improve our elastic power. Variations of drop jumps (drop to vertical jump, drop to box jump, drop to broad jump) are employed in the gym to elicit the stretch shortening cycle, while on-field, we use variations of pogo jumps, hops, bounds, and skips. Every team warm-up we do is an opportunity to sprinkle in some of these elastic plyometric movements, emphasizing short contact times and springiness.

    Movement practice

Corrective programming, prehab, mobility/stability work..I’m not sure what we’re supposed to call it anymore, but either way we’re talking about the same thing. A movement practice focused on making your body work nice again. It almost certainly worked nicely at some stage, but that was probably a long time ago, which leaves all athletes with something to work on to keep their joints healthy and efficient.

Why is it that the greatest predictor of injury to a joint is a past injury? Could it be that we take the absence of pain as the absence of a problem? We need need to be meticulous and identify the underlying risk factors and address them every day. Whether it is a mechanical issue, mobility deficiency, lack of motor control or proprioception, muscle recruitment issues, muscular hypertonicity…chances are if you are an athlete who trains and competes hard you need to check in with your body and feed it some love.

It would be easy if the solution to movement and mobility problems was to train harder and harder, but if anything this tactic will exacerbate any underlying issues you may have. Out of the 4 Need-to-do’s outlined here, this may be the most difficult to stick with as it does not provide the instant gratification of a strength, power, or speed session. But consistency with your movement practice may be the key to ensuring we can enjoy those hard sessions and capitalise upon the potential performance gains. One pitfall to avoid here is falling into the trap of spending all your gym time on correctives or mobility work; getting strong is equally important when it comes to injury prevention.

Strength, power, and speed can be trained concurrently in-season, when consideration is given to the prioritization, sequencing, and timing of training sessions, as well as the overall training volume. We certainly can train all of these abilities to a relatively high degree throughout the entire yearly cycle while emphasising certain qualities in different blocks through effective planning.

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Shift that force-velocity curve to the right

But for now let’s not get lost in the world of periodization; keeping things simple is the order of the day. Sticking to the 4 Need-to-Do’s outlined above means we are training all along the force velocity curve, while keeping us healthy, adaptable, and resilient with a consistent movement practice. Do them every week and you are banking the 20% of your efforts that will give you 80% of your physical improvements.

“If it is important, do it every day. If it’s not important, don’t do it at all.”

Dan John, Never Let Go: A Philosophy of Lifting, Living and Learning

Author: Cairbre

Cairbre is the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Tipperary Hurling Team, having previously coached Arsenal Women FC and at the Arsenal Youth Academy. Blog posts inspired by a curiosity about the inner workings of the body and mind, and the pursuit of athletic performance.

UKSCA accredited, with a Sport and Exercise Sciences BSc, and Sports Performance MSc from the University of Limerick.

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