Football, arguably, is the most physically demanding of all sports. An international footballer has to be quick, agile, strong and flexible, with tremendous lung power. On an average an international footballerlogs about 6-7km during the course of a game, most of it with great speed and agility. In short, he is a physical animal.
Recently, I spent some time with the legendary Indian footballer Chuni Goswami, who had captained India to an Asian Games gold in 1962. I could not help noticing how sprightly and strong he looked even though he is in his 70s, and has been marginally diabetic for the last 20 or so years.
I rate flexibility and stability as the most important physical attributes for any sport—and it is the same for football. All the other physical parameters follow in hierarchy. About 80% of all football injuries occur due to the lack of range of motion (flexibility) and stability in the hips, knees and ankle joints. Basically there are two aspects of flexibility— elasticity and plasticity. Elasticity is the ability of the muscle to quickly stretch and return to its original length, while plasticity is the muscle’s ability to permanently change its length and remain in that state unless otherwise stimulated. Elasticity is enhanced by dynamic stretching, which a footballer usually performs at the beginning of a practice/training session or match. Dynamic stretching helps mobilize the joint and get it ready for the tough workload ahead. Static stretching enhances plasticity and is performed at the end of the match or training session to restore original length to the muscles. Unless muscles are stretched at the end of a hard session, they remain distorted and shortened over a long period and adversely affect joint alignment, leading to injury. In fact, all of us can benefit from better flexibility.
Step up: About 80% of all football injuries occur due to the lack of flexibility
Most of the musculoskeletal issues with the average sedentary office-goer and the weekend warrior stem from poor flexibility; that is one aspect of fitness that needs to be given top priority. Just 10 minutes of stretching a day can keep back, knee, shoulder and neck pain away for the sedentary person.
Cardiovascular endurance comes next. A footballer needs to have an oxygen tank in his lungs. A top international player needs to train at intensities that regularly push pulse rates well above 200. This can only be achieved with short and hard bursts of anaerobic training also known as Interval training. The regular gym-goer can take a leaf out of the footballer’s book. Instead of doing long, slow, steady state, mindless cardio work on the treadmill or track, it is better to build in short, intense bursts of 2-3 minutes which really push up the pulse rate and then rest for the same amount of time before repeating for three-four sets. This will torch all the fats in the body, clear the arteries of plaque and build a ticker of steel! This kind of training also builds speed by developing fast-twitch fibres—the kind of muscle that allows you to do things fast and with explosive power.
You can never be too strong for a sport. Footballers need to be built like an ox— especially in the legs, hips and calf areas. The best exercises for strength are squats, deadlifts, barbell cleans and snatches. According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association of America, an adult male footballer should be able to squat 1.5 times his own body weight. The squat is an extremely beneficial and versatile exercise for even the non-athlete as it teaches correct hip flexion and pelvic tilt and challenges the stabilizers and flexibility of the lower body. In fact, a combination of squats, deadlifts, clean-and-snatch and push-ups is all that’s needed to really build overall strength and muscle endurance.
If you are not in the habit, start with very light weights, or just the barbell rod, to get the feel and posture right, and then slowly add more weight as you get comfortable. Just three times a week of these compound lifting exercises, a couple of sessions of Interval training, and lots of stretching, and you will be running faster, fending off defenders with ease, and kicking the ball with effortless power—all of this, without getting injured.
Ranadeep Moitra is a certified coach from The National Strength and Conditioning Association of America, and has worked with the Bengal cricket team, East Bengal Football Club, and the Indian Under-21 cricket team. He currently coaches the Indian golf team.
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