Sports associated with endurance typically require an individual to keep going for a long period of time over a long distance. You my thank of cycling in the Tour de France, ultrarunning of the UTMB or Badwater 135, or Ironman events such as Kona.Why should football be considered an endurance event?
Quite simply because of the length of the season and number of games. What does it takes to be a successful endurance athlete? How does an endurance athlete maintain peak performance over a sustained period of time? We will have a look at the basics, which must be done well and consistently, to illustrate why taking this approach will help professional footballers navigate the course of the season.
I am a great believer in learning from other fields, and fields within fields. What can you learn about your game from another game?
A footballer can run 10 or 11km during a game. Pace will vary from a saunter to a sprint, sometimes with the ball and often without. Feet are moving throughout except for short breaks when there can be a brief recovery. Managing energy through the game is important. Players must take these opportunities to recharge and perhaps refuel.
In ultrarunning, keeping your feet moving is a given. The speed of footfall changes according to the terrain of course: downhill, rocky, hills, flat. Come what may you shuffle on. There are at least two important considerations for the ultrarunner to persist: fuelling and thinking tools. Performance and the end result relies upon these factors.
However, too much focus on the prize can be distracting from what must happen now as a step in the right direction. There are plenty examples of this in both running and football. A brief check-in with where you want to end up can motivate as long as you don’t forget what is going on in this moment. One useful thinking tool is to ask yourself the right, positive questions. For example, what is my best choice now? And now?
Comparing this to a long football season, how does the player fuel and use his or her thinking tools to keep going? Some ultrarunners have taken up a vegan diet, realising the importance of quality intake. This was questioned. How could such a diet provide the necessary nutrients? Such questions have been answered by super runners such as Catra Corbett and Rich Rolls (listen to them talk here), and many other athletes.
Can you think of any professional footballers who have a vegan or vegetarian diet? The margins are small in top level sport meaning that the cost of sub-optimal performance is great, whether this be due to fatigue, injury, pain or a life stressor.
Read about vegan and vegetarian footballers here.
Ultra-athletes will create a recovery process. Usually via trial and error, talking to other athletes and making mistakes, top level competitors will groove a way to create the conditions for adaptation and recovery. The risks of not having an effective routine include fatigue, injury and pain with on-going sequelae.
The utter basics include hydration (although you should be keeping hydrated throughout the game, knowing your strategy that has been developed on the training ground), re-fuelling and sleep. It does appear that recovery has a personal element in that some swear by certain strategies that have no definitive scientific evidence yet ‘work’ for that person. These include ice baths, balms, stretching, massage, elevate legs, compression socks, breathing and meditation. The key is to find out what works for you through practice. You can measure success by the speed of recovery: how long until you feel energised once more and ready to perform? If this rate slows, you may wish to seek advice.
A further part of recovery is to consider what you did, how you did it, what went well and what you can build upon in terms of performance. After all, we seek to improve performance via practice and learning, with each event and each training period an opportunity to grow and develop. You may like to consider whether you are doing the basics in the best way and consistently enough before trying to add the flash. Dedicated practice and deep learning are both ingredients for success.
One thing is inevitable over a long season or a long run or cycle, is that there will be ups and downs. Moments of flow, aliveness, utter joy and jubilation will be punctuated by self-doubt, self-criticism, lows and pain. There is natural and individual variation of course, and numerous reasons for each that I will not go into here, besides acknowledging this fact.
There are times to be positive, times to be negative and times to be receptive. Judging which and when is the skill. This does not mean that positive is somehow good and negative is somehow bad, instead that I may need to be negative here to make the best out of this situation. This could be accepting defeat so that I can concentrate upon what went well and what needs to be considered to move on. The way in which I respond and think about situations I can choose. I can become increasingly skilful at choosing by developing my self-awareness and having a clear picture(s) of success whilst maintaining a strong presence in what is happening right now.
Choice in response; what does this mean? Things just seem to appear and unfold. I do not voluntarily think, instead am merely aware of what has just popped into my mind. It is at that point I can decide upon the next best action if I am aware. Being unaware, or on autopilot (that has a use), means I will tend to become embroiled in my thoughts and feelings that come together. Practicing self-awareness then, becomes a key skill. This can be simply by pausing and checking in, something anyone can do. You may need a prompt to begin, until it becomes a healthy habit. The question is: how am I? What are my needs right now? What must happen for the best me to turn up here and now?
There are many thinking tools that we can learn and practice. They are of vital importance when it comes to performance as this is the way we focus, re-focus, energise, change our body state and achieve our best. The consistency of practice and use of what I would consider a basic set of tools for performance builds momentum. Without the thinking tools of my embodied mind, I would not have been able to complete an ultra marathon. Without thinking tools, Steve Smith would not have turned the 1st Ashes Test around in Australia’s favour. Without thinking tools that pertain to sustained performance over long periods that contain bursts of energy, a football player will not achieve their best.
People not players
Success emerges from an approach that considers people over players. Slowly we are seeing this appear in professional football as highlighted at the excellent Training Ground Guru Youth Development conference in June this year.
Look at the image above that I drew to illustrate the pain experience. The small triangle about the waterline represents pain, and below all the relevant factors that are entwined and make the whole person (and there are more). The same can be said for performance that is the tip of the iceberg with all the same factors below. We will only see the best of an individual when they are ‘treated’ or managed as a whole person, similar to when I work with someone suffering chronic pain. If you merely focus on the pain and location of pain, the outcomes are poor. Focus on the person and they can start using their pain to meet their needs, transform their experience and move on to live a fulfilling life.
The team organism ~ a brief look
The team is a living organism with many moving, breathing, feeling, sensing, perceiving, predicting parts. How do you keep such an organism alive and performing? You consider the individual people, their needs and how they connect and interrelate.
For a team to perform, wellness and welfare are at the heart. Who turns up each day? What is the energy level? Who does what? How can we support and encourage each other? What happens when a part of the organism os struggling? Do we have the conditions to support and encourage? How do we do that and does it work? There are many considerations for this complex entity, a living organism, to operate in a healthy manner. By thinking of a team in such a way, again we can draw on other fields to understand how it can best work: biology, ecology, leadership, management etc.
The season is a long one. It is to be endured but at a level of the most consistent performance that can be achieved by a living organism, the team. Each part is key; each member (whole person) of the club. With all pushing in the same direction via a shared philosophy, drawing upon related and unrelated fields for knowledge and inspiration. One of those is endurance sports.
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