Energy demands of Football
Just to remind you, there are three major systems available for the production of energy in the muscles: the ATP-PC system for high-intensity short bursts; the anaerobic glycolysis system for intermediate bursts of relatively high-intensity (this system produces the by-products of lactate ions and hydrogen ions, commonly known as lactic acid) and finally, there is the aerobic system for long efforts of low to moderate intensity.
With sporting events such as cycling, swimming and running, where the intensity is constant for the duration of the event, it is possible to estimate the relative contribution of each energy system. For example, the energy for the 100-metre sprint is split 50% from the ATP-PC system and 50% from the anaerobic glycolysis system. In contrast, the marathon relies entirely on the aerobic system (Newsholme et al. 1992). By contrast, games such as football are characterized by variations in intensity. Short sprints are interspersed with periods of jogging, walking, moderate-paced running and standing still. This kind of activity has been termed "maximal intermittent exercise".
It would seem reasonable to assume that during a football game, all three energy systems would be required, as intensity varies from low to very high. However, because it is not apparent just how fast, how many and how long the sprints are, and just how easy and how long the intervening periods are, it is difficult to determine which of the energy systems are most important. Most of the football-related research has attempted to tackle this problem.
A 15m sprint every 90 seconds
English researchers Reilly and Thomas (1976) investigated the patterns of football played in the old first division. They found that a player would change activity every 5 to 6 seconds, and on average he would sprint for 15 metres every 90 seconds. They found the total distance covered varied from 8 to 11km for an outfield player - 25% of the distance was covered walking, 37% jogging, 20% running below top speed, 11% sprinting and 7% running backwards. Ohashi et al. (1988), researching football in Japan, confirmed these findings, showing 70% of the distance was covered at low to a moderate pace below 4m/s, with the remaining 30% covered by running or sprinting at above 4m/s. Thus, for example, if a football player covers 10km in total, around 3km will be done at a fast pace, of which probably around 1km will be done at top speed.
The pattern of football play has also been expressed in terms of time. Hungarian researcher Apor (1988) and Ohashi et al. (1988) both describe football as comprising sprints of 3 to 5 seconds interspersed with rest periods of jogging and walking of 30 to 90 seconds. Therefore, the high to low-intensity activity ratio is between 1:10 to 1:20 with respect to time. The aerobic system will be contributing most when the players' activity is low to moderate, i.e. when they are walking, jogging and running below maximum. Conversely, the ATP-PC and anaerobic glycolysis systems will contribute during high-intensity periods. These two systems can create energy at a high rate and so are used when intensity is high. The above research has described the common patterns of play during football, and from this, we can reasonably deduce when each of the energy systems is contributing most. However, now we need to establish just how vital each energy system is for success.
Recovering from high-intensity bursts
There is evidence that the aerobic system is crucial for football. Along with the fact that players can cover over 10km in a match, Reilly (1990) found heart rate to average 157 bpm. This is the equivalent of operating at 75% of your VO2 max for 90 minutes, showing that aerobic contributions are significant.
This is confirmed by the fact that various studies have shown footballers to have VO2 max scores of 55 to 65 ml/kg/min. These VO2 max scores represent moderately high aerobic power. Reilly and Thomas (1976) showed that there was a high correlation between a player's VO2 max and the distance covered in a game. This was supported by Smaros (1980) who also showed that VO2 max correlated highly with the number of sprints attempted in a game. These two findings show that a high level of aerobic fitness is very beneficial to a footballer.
The higher the player's aerobic power, the quicker he can recover from the high-intensity bursts. The ATP-PC and anaerobic glycolysis systems will fuel these short bursts. Then, during rest periods, large blood flow is required to replace the used-up phosphate and oxygen stores in the muscles and to help remove any lactate and hydrogen ion by-products. The quicker this is achieved, the sooner a player can repeat the high-intensity sprints, and thus cover more distance and be able to attempt more sprints. Therefore, the aerobic system is crucial for fuelling the low to moderate activities during the game, and as a means of recovery between high-intensity bursts.
Which system fuels the sprints?
As already mentioned the ATP-PC and anaerobic glycolysis systems fuel the high-intensity periods. However, if we are to optimize training programs, we need to know whether in performing the high-intensity bursts both systems contribute evenly or whether one is more important. As the sprints a player makes are mostly 10 to 25 metres in length or 3 to 5 seconds in duration, some researchers have assumed that the ATP-PC system will be the most important. However, since football has an intermittent intensity pattern, just because the sprints are brief does not mean that anaerobic glycolysis does not occur; research has shown that anaerobic glycolysis will begin within 3 seconds. To determine whether anaerobic glycolysis is significant during football, researchers have analysed blood lactates during match play. However, results from these studies have varied. Tumilty et al. (1988) from Australia cite research ranging from 2 mmol/l, which is a low lactate score indicating little anaerobic glycolysis, to 12 mmol/I, which is quite a high score. Most studies seem to find values in the 4-8 mmol/I range, which suggests that anaerobic glycolysis has a role.
The contrast in results is probably due to the varying levels of football in different studies. Some use college-level players, other professionals. Some studies test training games, others competitive matches. This is likely to confound results. Ekblom (1986), a researcher from Sweden, clearly showed that the level of play was crucial to the lactate levels found. Division One players showed lactate levels of 8-10 mmol/1 progressively down to Division Four players showing only 4 mmol/1. Tumilty et al. (1988) conclude that the contribution of anaerobic glycolysis remains unclear, but is probably significant. They suggest that the tempo of the game may be crucial to whether anaerobic glycolysis is significant or not. As Ekblom (1986) noted: "It seems that the main difference between players of different quality is not the distance covered during the game, but the percentage of overall fast-speed distance during the game and the absolute values of maximal speed play during the game".
The conclusion from these lactate studies is that, as the playing standard increases, so may the contribution of anaerobic glycolysis. However, I think more precise research is needed to determine exactly how fast and how frequent the high-intensity efforts during play are. Maximum-intensity bursts with long recoveries will emphasise the ATP-PC system, whereas high-intensity but not maximal bursts occurring more frequently will highlight the anaerobic glycolysis system more. Thus, along with the standard, the style of play and football culture may also influence the physiological demands. This means that the country in which the researchers are based may affect the conclusions they draw when studying the relative contributions of the two systems.
What action to take
From the research completed so far, it would probably be fair to conclude that for the high-intensity bursts during play both the anaerobic glycolysis and the ATP-PC systems contribute, but that the ATP-PC system is more important. This is because the ratio of high-intensity to low-intensity activity is between 1:10 and 1:20 by time. The high-intensity periods are very short and the rest periods relatively long. Therefore, the ATP-PC system will probably be more useful and also has sufficient time to recover. Research has also shown that lactate values become moderately high but not so high as to indicate that the anaerobic glycolysis system is working extremely hard. Indirectly, this is confirmed by Smaros (1980) who showed that glycogen depletion was mostly in the slow-twitch muscle fibres, which suggests that glycogen is being used for the aerobic system but not the anaerobic system. However, the possibility exists that for professional-standard football, or football played at a high tempo, anaerobic glycolysis will be at least as significant as ATP-PC.
If coaches of professional teams want to know better which system is more important, then more research taking place in their own country and using top players as subjects is needed, accurately analysing intensity patterns in match play and measuring lactate levels. Until then, training regimes must cater to all three systems, with particular attention to the aerobic and ATP-PC systems. Nagahama et al. (1988) performed a Maximal Intermittent Exercise (MIE) test on footballers that consisted of 20 x 5 seconds maximum efforts with 30 seconds active rest. This was meant to mimic a high-intensity section of the game. They correlated the performance on this test with fitness tests representing the three energy systems, VO2 max for the aerobic system, lactic power for the anaerobic glycolysis system, and maximum power for the ATP-PC system. All three components of fitness were significant to the performance on the MIE test. Apor (1988) agrees with this in making fitness recommendations for footballers, saying that a good aerobic fitness needs to be linked to a moderate anaerobic glycolysis power and a high ATP-PC power.
A specific type of interval training for footballers would be to mimic the demands of an actual game with the correct work-to-rest ratios and distances covered. If players sprint for over 1 km during a game with high to low ratios of 3 to 5 seconds to 30 to 90 seconds, then a session such as two sets of 20 x 25m maximal sprints with 30 seconds rest (2 minutes between sets), would represent the demands of a tough match, namely, frequently repeatable high power. To focus solely on the ATP-PC system, short maximal sprints of 20 to 60 metres with 1 to 2 minutes recovery are best. To train the anaerobic glycolysis system, longer sprints of 15 to 30 seconds, with 45 to 90 seconds recovery, are recommended. Aerobic training involves running continuously, fartlek, long repetitions (e.g. 6 x 800 metres, 1-minute rest) or extensive intervals at moderate speeds (e.g. 30 x 200 metres, 30 seconds rest). Trainers should be aware that running sessions, intervals and shuttle runs (or doggies) should be carefully planned so that they target the correct energy system. Running speeds, distances and rest periods should be calculated so that the session will target the specific energy system the coach wants to develop.
The information on this page is adapted from Brandon (1997) with the kind permission of Electric Word plc.
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