Football: The changing face of pre-season training

Sheffield United training at Graves Park - 20th July 1981
Sheffield United training at Graves Park - 20th July 1981

Back in the not-too-distant past, the beginning of pre-season training weighed heavily on a footballer’s mind, like a kid at the end of the school holidays.

The thought of returning to the team training ground then quickly sent running around the town, up hill and down dale was enough to have the old pros crying into their pint as they attempted to enjoy the final days of their well-earned break.

Sheffield Wednesday training - 6th July 1987

Sheffield Wednesday training - 6th July 1987

The arduous pounding of roads and tracks would go on for days, quite often weeks, before they would eventually get sight of a football, albeit having been sent off to play a nondescript European team and then come home and be kicked around a pitch by a local non-league side with a few boys hoping to share a barroom tale of how they sent a big name back into the changing room with an Adidas World Cup boot imprint on their upper thigh.

However, the notion of the podgy pro returning after the summer having enjoyed himself a little too much on the beaches of Marbella has been largely consigned to annuls of a bygone time.

Footballers are considered athletes in every sense - highly valuable, expensive assets and fitness has now become the most important aspect of their game.

You can have all the skill in the world, but if, after 70 minutes, your team needs a goal and you are glued to the touchline, hands on knees and struggling to catch a breath, then you are no use to anyone.

Sheffield United training at Graves Park - 20th July 1981

Sheffield United training at Graves Park - 20th July 1981

And with so much money at stake these days, clubs can ill-afford to take risks.

That’s why investing in technological advancement in health and fitness of footballers has become a priority at clubs, who firmly stand by the opinion that small percentages can make all the difference and the ability to play at the highest tempo from the first minute to the last is key to that.

And a lot of the work for the entire season, is done in these few weeks prior to the campaign kicking off.

Our club’s players will make their return this week, and they won’t be hitting the roads straight away, at least.

Sheffield United FC in training - July 1971

Sheffield United FC in training - July 1971

“Off season to pre-season period, you’ll have a period of monitoring and measuring to look at what’s changed since the back end of the season,” says Dave Hembrough, Sport Science Officer at Sheffield Hallam University, who have working links with both Sheffield clubs.

“A lot of clubs will have a weight gain limit so they know players are going to go away, stop training, have some down time that is well needed and first things first is to see how the players are off the back of the off season; how has their weight changed, how has their body composition shifted, how has their fitness changed.

“The better players will maintain a weight and low body fat and level of fitness, and others not so much. So it’s then a case of seeing where people are against initial expectations and then plan the work that needs to be done.

“The issues that the clubs face is that fitness is arguably the most important tool of success and in the modern game fitness is very high.

Sheffield United FC 'Dennis Circuit and Derek French offering a private recovery service.

Sheffield United FC 'Dennis Circuit and Derek French offering a private recovery service.

“There are players who are at a level of fitness and if there is a situation where a player comes back lacking fitness or is overweight, it is going to be a severe detriment to him, his playing ability and have an effect on his team and his team mates and their results.

“So it is really important that off season, players look after themselves and come back in a reasonable standard. If they don’t they have got a lot more hard work to do. If they don’t, the ability where they can reach by the start of the season is decreased as well.”

The tools are there now. Players have their fitness monitored by GPS technology, measuring their levels, and gearing them up for the season ahead.

In the past, there was an one-size fits all aspect to pre-season training which has now been thrown out.

Every player will have a personal training regime specific to their needs.

The general idea is that if you as a player spend much of the game making short bursts, then there is little point in five mile runs day after day.

Brian Deane Sheffield Utd v Manchester United. Scoring first Premiership goal. 15th August 1992

Brian Deane Sheffield Utd v Manchester United. Scoring first Premiership goal. 15th August 1992

Nutritionists also play their part, ensuring that the right foods and fluids are taken on as part of the recovery process.

“One of the changes to the modern game is the level in which we can analyse the movement quality, function and form,” adds Dave.

“Football being a game which has got such huge finance attached to it, it’s very expensive to have players picking up niggles or becoming injured.

“The last thing the clubs want is for players to be removed from action. It’s really important, a huge part of the conditioning programme.

“What we are starting to see at the minute from professional sports, football leading the way, is the amount of analysis and individualisation of training prescription, fitness is not longer the determining factor because everyone is at an even keel.

“What clubs are now looking for is technological advancements or very specific approaches to what is the determining factor to make a significant difference, be that sports psychology, supplementation, nutrition.

“Fitness, strength, conditioning, the ability to resist injury is really important but in many cases it’s pretty high and clubs are looking for additional factors that can make a difference.

“Some of the things that were impossible in the past are now standard.

“Things that modern technology enables us to do is to measure everyone, to monitor everyone and have expectations and standards.”

However, what about those who may be injured, or indeed haven’t yet tied themselves to a club?

“You are facing a tough battle if you don’t have a pre-season,” warns Dave.

“The percentage of improvement over a pre-season is massive and it sets you up, not just to be able to play well over a season but to tolerate what is expected of you during the season.

“The chances are that a player that misses a pre-season for whatever reason, comes back and is not going to be able to deal with the volume and intensity of training and fixtures, he’s going to be behind on his fitness and will need to do additional work but arguably he’s not in a position where he is able to cope with that.

“The chances of a player who misses a pre-season making the cut is low or breaking down and becoming injured is pretty high.”

Former Sheffield United striker Brian Deane, straddled both eras during his career.

At the beginning he experienced the gruelling runs, but remembers United being at the forefront of the move to make fitness more important.

“We would come in and barely see a ball for days or weeks,” says Deane who is now the manager of Norwegian side Sarpsborg 08.

“It was very, very tough and back then there were some who would try and get out of it in some way.

“The older players would have a word with the younger ones and tell them not to go too fast, so as not to embarrass them.

“That was wrong, obviously, but it happened.

“Back in those days, there wasn’t the same level of thought going into pre-season training - everyone did the same thing and it was hard work at times.

“But under Dave Bassett, we were one of the first teams to embrace it. I remember he brought in a fitness coach called Ed (Baranowski) and things changed after that.

“The manager was quick to realise that although we may not have been as good as some of the other teams, we could try and be fitter than them and that worked in our favour.

“I think teams started to use that more and now we are at the point where fitness is the most important factor.”

Dave Hembrough, Sheffield Hallam University

Dave Hembrough, Sheffield Hallam University