Get Faster Over Shorter Distances

November 4, 2022

During a 90 min soccer match, players often cover over 10 km in distance. As we know from experience, this distance is covered in a variety of manners, including sprinting, running, jogging, and walking. Players exert the most energy during higher speed activities, in which they cover about 1 km in distance.  

We also all know that these running speeds are always interchanging depending on the game conditions. Attacking players often can change speeds when they want to, while defenders have to change speeds based on what their opponent is trying to do. Making this more complicated is that the distances covered under each speed are rarely in  a straight line, often being covered with one or more changes of direction. There are some differences when changes of direction as compared to straight-line running that should be considered when training.  

When a player runs fast in a straight line, their muscles have to produce force to maintain speed, but their forward momentum helps! Every time the foot touches the ground, the muscles of the hip, knee, and ankle forcefully shorten to push the body forwards. As long as no forces act on the body other than gravity (like another contacting another player), the body wants to keep moving forward. When the foot contacts the ground, there are some forces that slow the body down, and it is these forces that have to be overcome to maintain speed. But the bottom line is that thanks to Newton’s 1st law, our muscles don’t have to work as hard to keep us moving as they do when we start from standing still.  

When players change direction, another situation arises. The body wants to keep moving in the same direction (Newton again!). The player has to slow the body down, stop, and then speed up in the new direction. These three requirements cause an increase in the energy needed and an increase of stress on the muscles. The increased energy requirement results in a higher heart rate and increased fatigue. The increased muscle stress can cause muscle soreness.  

In addition to the increased energy and muscle stress, the changes of direction will also cause a decrease in speed simply because it takes time to stop your body and get started in the new direction. The difference between good and great players is often due to speed. Speed in soccer can be greatly improved by becoming more efficient when turning! Training can help players be more efficient, which will lead to increasing  speed and decreasing  wasted effort. The player who runs the fastest in a straight line does not usually win soccer duels. , The duels are usually won by the player who is faster over shorter distances with changes of direction  

The Plan  

Like anything else, changing direction can be improved with specific training. When considering fitness, changing direction (often called agility) should be a consideration. Working to improve changing direction involves three main factors: 1) using efficient technique, 2) training using intervals, and 3) training with planned and unplanned changes of direction.  

For proper technique, a key factor is reducing wasted motion, and wasted motion is typically displayed by taking more steps than necessary to change direction. Let’s break change of direction into 2 main categories: 1) complete change of direction (running in one direction, turning, and then running back where you came from), and 2) partial change of direction (running in one direction, slowing down, and the speeding up into a new direction on an angle).   

For complete change of direction, efficiency increases when footfalls are reduced. To increase efficiency, try to make the turn with a single footfall. As you prepare to change direction, turn your body sideways and plant your outside foot on the ground so the toes are pointed sideways (90 degrees to the original direction). Depending on your speed you may also need to plant your inside foot. If you so, try also to have that foot turned sideways. If your feet are turned sideways, your body will also be turned, and a big part of the change of direction is already completed!  

After the foot plants, make sure your next step is in the direction you want to go - not on an angle. This is where many players lose their advantage because any step not in the direction of where you want to go is a wasted step. I you can limit your change of direction to 3 foot plants (initial foot plant with outside foot, 2nd foot plant with inside foot, final foot plant with outside foot which is actually the first step in the new direction), your efficiency will increase.  

Make sure you practice this with both feet because in the game, you may not have a choice of which foot you use. A very good progression to practice this, which could also be a part of your warm-up, would be  

  1. Side shuffle to a point, plant, and side shuffle back. In this case, you already have your body turned sideways on the plant, and you should be able to make the turn with a single foot plant.
  1. Slow jog to a point, turn, and return. Depending on your speed, you may still be able to compete this with a single foot plant.
  1. Run, turn, and return. As you speed up, the 2nd foot plant may become necessary, but focus on getting your body turned sideways on the change of direction.

For partial changes of direction, the key once again is to not make wasted steps. Depending on the angle of change, these actions can be performed with a single foot plant. Use your outside foot - this is important - because the step in the new direction can be made immediately with the inside foot.   

Changes of direction involve increased energy, and to get maximum training effects while reducing injury risk, it is important to reduce fatigue between reps. For that reason, interval training is a great approach. For these high explosive activities, I recommend that you perform actions that have about 1 turn every 3-4 seconds or more, and complete activities that last 1 minute or less. Often times the players I work with will only complete a turning activity for 10-20 seconds before rest. The rest period can be 1 to 6 times as long as the work period, so we are talking about rest of 10-60 sec for a 10 sec work period. In this approach, you get the benefit of working at high intensity with the chance to recover before the next interval.   

One major consideration is that when training to change direction, players often change direction at predetermined locations, like at a cone or line. However. in soccer, often the change of direction occurs at unexpected times because the change occurs due to the movement of an opponent or a ball. Injuries often occur during these cages of direction, especially knee injuries. Most ACL injuries are non-contact and occur when a player stops and starts off in a new direction. A cause of the injury could be that the body was not prepared. It is important that when training for changes of direction, both planned and unplanned changes are trained.  

Planned changes of direction can be performed in many manners. My favorite is a ‘petal run’. This training is named  petal run because the players run off in different directions like the petals of a flower.  

  1. Set up a grid with cones or flags in a 10-15 yard square with a flag or cone in the direct center. The center marker is the middle of the flower and the corner markers are the petals.
  1. A player starts at one corner. They sprint to the center marker, change direction, and return to the start marker
  1. They then sprint along one side of the square to the next marker.
  1. Then in, back out, and repeat. 
  1. Repeat until arriving back at the start marker.

In this manner, you can practice complete change of direction and partial change of direction. One rep gives you 4 complete changes and 4 partial changes. It should take about 1 minute to get around a square. Rest for 1 minute and repeat. Alternate directions around the square on different reps so you can practice with both feet.   

The same setup can be used for unplanned changes of direction. In this case, have two players go at a time with one being the leader and the other the follower. The leader runs into he square but then goes to random markers instead of a predefined pattern. The follower tries to stay with the leader. Complete for 15-45 sec and then a new group can go. In this case, the leader gets to practice planned change of direction and the follower gets to practice unplanned changes of direction.  

Remember, the key to changing direction is efficiency! Try to reduce the amount of steps and time necessary, which will result in an increase in speed!  

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