Last week, my wife and I travelled to Ireland to visit my sister, Laura and her family. On that trip, we made sure we took the time to take in the sights and experiences that travel to other countries affords us. My sister and I share a passion for running. However, her dedication to fitness, self-improvement, running as a lifestyle is on another level, which I tremendously admire. Over the years, she has tinkered and dedicated herself to finding what best works for her — re-calibrations of her training plans, diet, and lifestyle. Her husband, David, has done the same and their lifestyle and quality of life has dramatically improved.
Nestled in the Wicklow Mountains of County Wicklow, Ireland is a small village called Roundwood. The roads in this part of the country (literally the countryside) are basically the width of footpaths in the U.S. and are ridiculously tricky to navigate. They are also perfect for running and training. Rolling hills turn into banked turns and the straightaways are deceptively difficult. The amount of skill it takes to run these roads and hike and climb some of the mountains effectively and safely reminds me of what it takes to be successful in soccer.
Laura and I have run pretty much every distance together including marathons. We’ve paced one another, each playing ‘the rabbit’ to help the other maintain focus during those difficult stretches of a race or training run. However, last week’s trip revealed something about fitness that is often overlooked — it’s far more effective when it’s a lifestyle, not a chore.
So how does this relate to soccer?
Mental endurance is as important as physical endurance
Not all fitness is equal. There’s a really good phrase that everyone should remember: The mind leads, the body follows. It’s really more of a mantra, but it relates to one’s mental endurance, which is arguably the trickiest variable. Running the country roads or climbing the Great Sugar Loaf with Laura required mental endurance before it required any physical output. Listening for cars (remember, they’re on the other side of the road), being mindful of your foot placement on unsteady ground, using the appropriate stride length, cadence, and turnover rate to negotiate a hill, corner, ascent, and descent demanded focus.
The same is true in soccer. Stages of training, match play, and even time away from the field require mindfulness and focus. When the mind goes (due to fatigue, immaturity, stress, anxiety, etc.), technique and tactics usually go, too. A big reason I believe in deep practice, visualization, and repetition training is the way it challenges the mind and body to the point that training simulates game-realistic scenarios and enables players to improve. It doesn’t take long to watch players and figure out who has the mental endurance to value attention to detail in their approach. The great Terry Michler has a great line: “the small things make the biggest difference.”
Fitness should be a lifestyle, not a preseason task
One constant that trips to Europe have revealed is the fitness level of top players (or those who want to be considered ‘top players’) is always remarkably high…even in the offseason. Let me explain: when I was a kid and playing in the Netherlands, we rode our bicycles everywhere. When it rained, we cycled to training. When it was dreadfully hot, windy, or inconvenient, we were on the bicycle. Not once were we subjected to two-a-days, made to run laps for the sake of running laps, or made to do punishment runs.
If we ran laps it was with a ball and it was usually a warm-up or cool-down exercise. Sometimes, running laps with a ball was a dribbling exercise to effectively teach the different technique required to push the ball out in front while accelerating. When we did team runs, they were through the park in small groups or teams with fun objectives like “touch 100 different trees in 15 minutes”. After training, it was back on the bicycle and on to the next adventure.
Some 15 years on, it’s always remarkable how many people depend on their own two feet to get them from Point A to Point B. They’re cycling, running, walking everywhere. Now, I know things are different in the States with distances and public transportation options, but I’m sure there is plenty of carryover that can be applied here.
I went over to England for a few days and found the same was true with most of society — even in Central London. Granted, driving a car is expensive in Europe, the majority of footballers (young and old) were either cycling or jogging through the city streets to football courts, parks, fields, and city squares. I was on a bus in Westminster near the London Eye where I saw guy in his 30s running with a ball in a cinch bag weaving in and out of the tourists, cabbies, and foot traffic. By the time the bus reached Trafalgar Square he was still running. Ten minutes later in Green Park, there he was — tirelessly playing pickup with a group of friends.
The takeaway here is fitness is something that has become a hotly-debated subject, and for good reason. We still have coaches putting young players through the meat grinder and running them into the dirt during preseason. Look, I love running. I’ve run marathons and ultra-marathons; however, I’d never advocate some of the crucible-style running practices coaches put their players (many of whom are average players at best and need to be getting as much contact time with a ball as possible instead of running aimlessly) through at the start of a season.
Stealing Time for Fitness
I won’t pretend to know how to calculate all the ‘down-time’ we have in a day. I will, however, tell you from personal experience that a few tweaks here and there will pay massive dividends in short and long term when it comes to fitness.
My sister has a phrase that I’ve come to appreciate: “When it’s a priority to you, you’ll find a way to make it happen.”
It’s no secret that the top players take the time to do the little things well. Whether it’s monitoring their water intake each day, arriving 10-15 minutes earlier (or staying a bit later) to work on their game, eating like a high-performing athlete, getting more sleep each night — the top players are always in state of calibrating their lifestyle around the game.
Some of the best players I’ve worked with literally carve out pockets of time to make these tweaks, which I call ‘stealing time to do the simple things’ (remember Terry Michler’s quote about the little things).
The following are little things I’ve done to help me reach fitness-based goals:
Instead of waking up and checking my phone for emails or getting on social media, I get a 15-30 minute run in; that way, I’ve started my day out with some physical activity after sleeping. Other times, a light stretching (yoga) session before and after doing a quick bodyweight circuit does wonders for the mind and body.
Here’s another ‘trick’ to use: As a player, I was rarely without a ball of some sort. I’d take a ball or mini-ball with me (just put it in my bag or the truck of my car) and get some juggles or a quick kick-around with friends. Years on, I’ve translated this to running and working out. Whether I’m training for a marathon or just trying to get back into shape, I never find myself without a pair of running shoes and workout clothes nearby (I stash some in my car).
When things get really busy, I walk my dogs with my rucksack (with a 25-pound plate inside) on and even walk around the office with it on. Is it weird? You betcha! But does it help me? Absolutely.
The best way to get fit is by playing the game
As an experienced runner, I can tell you that no amount of miles, races, and training blocks directly translate to ‘match fitness’. Honestly, the best way for players to get fit is by playing the game. Does track and road work help build that foundational base? Yes. However, nothing gets a player fit like actual scrimmages and match play. Don’t overcomplicate this thing called fitness. There is no substitute for playing the game.
I accept that in the U.S., there’s a culture of bravado and toughness that has found its way into soccer. At its worst, a ‘running over soccer’ approach does a few things: The unprepared coaches often use running-heavy preseasons as a sort of proving ground for young players that need to be playing. It also deflects from a coach’s lack of functional training material, their ability to effectively manage a training session or block, and takes away from the game itself.
Each time I’ve gone overseas, the players I encountered never really had any sort of preseason running plan. The expectations are simple: show up fit, ready to compete, and ready to learn. This is easy when it’s a lifestyle, not a task to be feared. Footballers enjoy running and the serious ones will show up fit.
Fitness is what works for you
If you’re hellbent on keeping a running log and incorporating all the running your body is capable of into your preparation, that’s perfectly fine if that’s what works for you.
On the other side of the coin, there is NO excuse for a lack of fitness. How fit/unfit you are is literally the ONE thing you can control and if you’re the type of player who wants to leave it up to chance come preseason, that’s on you. You’ll just have no right to complain about the outcomes stemming from work you DID NOT put in when the others (who may not be as talented as you are) did before reporting for team workouts.
At the end of the day, fitness is what you make of it. I’m not going to denounce running plans and fitness tests in the game — they have their place and they are essential. The point I’m making is one must be mindful to best ensure the fitness being assessed matches the demands of the game the individuals/team will play.