The Physical Demands of Football

Let’s take a look at the physical demands of football: When developing a fitness programme for football it is important to have a basic understanding of what the physical demands are.

Is the training you are doing for yourself as a player or as a coach or trainer for your team helping to achieve success and improve physically? In my experience of working with several players and teams over many years, one of the important things to succeeding as a player is to be able to be specifically fit for football. Many players and teams can potentially spend time training and not be any physically fitter to play football. Sometimes certain training can even be of detriment to player development, or winning matches. By understanding the demands of the game, specific to position, it will be easier to design position specific drills and training programmes. And also get your players to buy into your training methods, whilst the players don’t need a scientific explanation for everything you do, its beneficial for them to understand the basis of the physical training programming you are deploying.

Of course depending on what level you play football the game has different physical demands. In my experience of working with players at all levels for many years I would say there is around 10-30% difference in the fitness levels between amateur and professional players.

Though the components are relatively the same, and it is important that training consists of developing the key fitness components of football to achieve success. And designing a program which meets the needs of the players in regards to their position, and their individual level of fitness to meet the demands of their position.

Football incorporates periods of high-intensity exercise interspersed with periods of lower-intensity exercise. The physiological demands of Football require players to be competent in several aspects of fitness, which include aerobic and anaerobic power, muscle strength, flexibility and agility.

Scientific research has demonstrated that top level outfield players cover distances of approximately 10-12 km per game.

Generally Midfielders cover the greatest distances (approx. 12 km), whereas generally defenders cover the least distance compared to all other outfield positions.

Different playing positions will generally cover different levels of distance.

I.E a defender would cover less distance than a midfielder, a general idea based on pro zone reports of the distance difference positions cover in different games follows.

Full backs       Total distance covered                               11.22km

High intensity distance covered                 1130m

Sprint distance covered                              350m

Number of high intensity activities              157

Number of sprints                                         54

Centre backs   Total distance covered                               10.32km

High intensity distance covered                   764m

Sprint distance covered                                211m

Number of high intensity activities                112

Number of sprints                                            33


Wide                 Total distance covered                                 11.70km

Midfield             High intensity distance covered                    1390m

Sprint distance covered                                   430m

Number of high intensity activities                182

Number of sprints                                           63


Central            Total distance covered                                    11.73km

Midfield             High intensity distance covered                     1144m

Sprint distance covered                                   302m

Number of high intensity activities                   169

Number of sprints                                            49


Attacker           Total distance covered                                   10.72km

High intensity distance covered                      106m

Sprint distance covered                                   351m

Number of high intensity activities                 142

Number of sprints                                            51

Taking into consideration a footballer’s activity in game of football, sprinting to get to the ball, movement on and off the ball, dribbling, shooting, tackling, heading, passing, jogging, walking, etc.

The footballer is accessing different energy systems, utilising different physical movements, heart rate fluctuating beats per minute. It is through having an understanding of what is happening throughout the game physiologically with the player, we can begin to develop a programme to ensure every element of training the player does is ensuring they develop and peak for games.

Summary of energy systems

  • Anaerobic alactic – high intensity, duration 0 to 15 seconds, used in soccer sprinting, kicking, tackling
  • Anaerobic lactic – high moderate intensity, duration 15 to 120 seconds, used in sprinting, recovery, runs, heart rate of 180–190, (> 90% of maximum).
  • Aerobic – moderate to low intensity, duration 120 seconds plus, used in soccer whilst jogging, walking, duration of game, heart rate of 160–170, (80% of max)

VO2 max is a useful indicator of the intensity of any exercise and its impact on the body. VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen (in millilitres) one can use in one minute per kilogram of body weight. Those who are fit have higher VO2 max values and can exercise more intensely than those who are not as well conditioned.

Aerobic activities Anaerobic activities
walking most tackling and contact situations
walking backwards jumping
jogging accelerating and changing direction quickly
running at speeds less than 3/4’s pace running at speeds greater than 3/4’s pace

The game of soccer is essentially aerobic with intermittent anaerobic and alactic bursts of energy. Outfield players average 160bpm during soccer games and operate at 75–80% of their maximum oxygen uptake (VO2 max) which is comparable to marathon running.

However, soccer is not characterised by steady heart rates of 160bpm which are sustained for 90 minutes of play. On the contrary, heart rates are continually fluctuating depending on the nature of the activity the soccer player is performing.

When I was working with Bury Football Club, we played a preseason match against a premiership club, and I spoke to the sports scientist at the club if it was possible to attach heart rate monitors to players in our team, and theirs to look at comparative data, as to what the difference physiological responses of the players were from the different levels of teams.

One being premiership and one being League 2, the findings were interesting, what I found was the physiological response in our league 2 players was different to that of the premiership. Whether that was down to training they had both done through their progressive careers, or genetic, style of football or combination of all three no one can answer the question to that. Though one thing that was clear the players in League two had to work a lot harder physically to stay in the game.

The graph below shows the heart rate of a player over a three minute excerpt from a game.

Look at how the heart rate of the player fluctuates from just less than 80 beat per minute, through to a peak of in and around 190 beats per minute, and what is clear is the fluctuation which is never a steady state.


 demands of soccer


Energy systems in soccer

The debate on conditioning for soccer players comes from the large distances a soccer player covers in a match. In the past coaches had a tendency to prescribe long, slow running during pre-season training.

But as we have seen above, during a game the intensity of exercise varies continually and fitness training should reflect this as realistically as possible. Training should also involve regular use of the ball as this will not only help develop the specific muscles involved in match play, but will also help improve technical and tactical skills and help keep players interested and keen.

Coaches should consider that a game of football combines the ability to change direction, kick and jump with power (anaerobic alactic) and sprint (anaerobic lactic) in a game that lasts 90 minutes or more (aerobic).

It’s important to note that football players are continuously moving from anaerobic movements back to aerobic activity, which allows recovery to take place. As a consequence you have one dominant energy system in the body (aerobic) with the two other energy systems that enable higher intensity of play (anaerobic alactic and anaerobic lactic). Therefore training in all three energy systems is vital.

Taking into consideration the energy systems used in football, and the physiological demands, some key training methods for football, which help develop the specific components are as follows:

Interval training

Interval training involves repetitions of high-speed/intensity work followed by periods of rest or low activity.

Interval training works both the aerobic and anaerobic systems and is considered one of the most effective methods of improving the physical conditioning of football athletes. There are many advantages to this system. Interval training allows the athlete to undertake a more intense workload over a longer period.

Here’s an example of a typical interval session for football:

  • Run 50 yards out and back in 18 seconds. Rest for 18 seconds. Go again. Do a total of 6 repetitions (reps). Rest for 2 minutes upon completion.
  • Run 40 yards out and back in 15 seconds. Rest for 15 seconds. Go again. Do a total of 8 reps. Rest for 2 minutes upon completion.
  • Run 30 yards out and back in 12 seconds. Rest for 12 seconds. Go again. Do a total of 10 repetitions. Rest for 2 minutes upon completion.
  • Run 20 yards out and back in 9 seconds. Rest for 9 seconds. Go again. Do a total of 12 reps.


The increased stress of competitions can cause footballers to react both physically and mentally in a manner that can negatively affect their performance abilities. They may become overwhelmingly nervous, tense, their heart rates increase, they break into a severe anxiety, they worry about the outcome of the game , they find it hard to concentrate on the process.

This has led coaches to take an increasing interest in the field of sport psychology and in particular in the area of competitive anxiety. That interest has focused on techniques that footballers can use in the competitive situation to maintain control and optimise their performance.