Sorry, Bobby - Becks and his mates would have run rings round your lot

Today's professional footballers are much fitter than their predecessors. But that's not surprising, says Peta Bee. The old timers thought warming-up was 'namby pamby'

Sunday 15 December 2002 01:00 GMT

Footballers moan a lot, this much we know. If they aren't already knackered, they're complaining about how they play too many games. And then there's all the retired players, banging on about how today's players have never had it so good. And then the current crop respond that their predecessors had it easy and wouldn't last 10 minutes in a modern game. Ever tried kicking a sodden leather ball, the old-timers reply. And so it goes on...

On one count at least, the modern players win hands down. Sport scientists who have measured and analysed every conceivable indicator of fitness are in no doubt that contemporary players could run rings round the great players of yesteryear. And before fifty per cent of you throw down your paper in disgust, even players whose careers have spanned the last three or four decades tend to agree.

Dr Neil Phillips was medical adviser to the Football Association (FA) and the England team during the 1960s and 1970s. He believes that a better understanding of physiology along with sweeping changes in attitude have undoubtedly resulted in improved fitness among top players. "You only have to look at the intensity and technique of training methods to see how far things have come," Phillips says. "In the 1950s, lapping around a running track was the sum total of most top players' fitness sessions and many of them never saw a ball from one Saturday to the next, the theory being that it made them hungrier to play in a game when you eventually got to kick a ball. Only in 1960 did ball practice become part of training."

If introducing a football to training sessions was a breakthrough, imagine trying to convince players that stretching before a game was a good idea. "Alf Ramsey and I wanted to introduce a proper warm-up after we had watched the Brazilian side jogging and stretching, but it was considered namby pamby by many of the players," Phillips says. "I remember how Jimmy Greaves always refused to take part in warm-ups because he felt it tired him out too much and that sort of feeling was quite common." Now, says John Brewer, director of the Sports Injury and Human Performance Centre at Lilleshall National Sports Centre, you won't catch a Premiership player doing less than 45 minutes of structured jogging and stretching.

With the intensity of the game greater than it was even 10 years ago, footballers need to be faster, both on their feet and in reacting to changes in play. Thanks to the relaxation of the offside law, for example, there is more pressure on them to cover the pitch at a faster pace.

Studies on top English players compared with Olympic athletes have shown that their body type most closely resembles 400-metre hurdlers and triple-jumpers. In sprint trials, Premiership players cover 30 metres in an average 3.94 seconds.

It's not just speed and strength that sets today's players apart; they have a better endurance base too. When British researchers looked at footballers from the old First Division in 1976, they found that the distance covered in a game was an average 8-11 kilometres, 25 per cent of which was walking and 11 per cent sprinting. Physiologists reckon that Premiership footballers now cover around 12-14 kilometres per match and that a greater percentage of that distance is run at top speed. In the World Cup qualifier against Greece last year, David Beckham was recorded as running 16.1 kilometres – that's the equivalent of almost 40 laps of an athletics track.

In a report sponsored by the Football Association and published in the current issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, it is suggested that players should get no break from training at the end of a season. By following individual fitness programmes during the summer, it could help them to reduce the average 22 days of training they miss through injury each season. Four in ten players get injured before the season starts, and these were usually linked to players launching straight back into intensive training after a relatively lengthy lay-off. "We know a lot more about how training methods work today," says Jimmy Armfield, who played for Blackpool and England in the 1950s-1970s and is now technical director for PFA Coaching.

Improved knowledge about nutrition has also had a impact. "We always ate steak before a game – it staggers me to think how much protein we ate on match day," says Ken Jones, who played for Southend and Swansea in the 1970s and is now a columnist for this paper. "Now that is considered totally wrong and they are told to eat carbohydrates."

In some ways, says Brewer, the overloaded season has had a positive impact on fitness levels. "They are less inclined to let themselves go when the season ends because they know they have to stay fit for the start of the next one," he says. "But they also have far better support services now. No player plays through an injury. That wasn't the case in the Sixties and Seventies." Indeed, Phillips recalls that England took only four staff members to the 1966 World Cup. "There was no physiotherapist, no fitness trainer, no masseur and no dietician," he says. "The intensity of preparation back then bares no comparison to today."

All of which serves to underline how difficult it is to make direct comparisons between two eras. Footballers may be fitter, but the argument as to whether they are better persists. "It is not just in football that fitness has improved in the last 40 years, it is across all sports,"says Armfield. "It is more to do with the time they live in as it is to do with talent. Today they have better diet, better equipment and better pitches, bigger squads and better medical services. So, with all due respect, they should be fitter and faster, shouldn't they?"

How footballers train – then and now


10.30am: Arrive at training ground.

11.00am: Jog a few laps of the pitch to warm up and perform a few stretches.

11.15am: Technical ball work and set-plays.

12.45pm: Lunch.

1.30pm Go home.


10.00am: Arrive at training ground.

10.10am: Rehydration with isotonic sports drink (repeated every 15-20 minutes throughout training).

10.30am: Thorough warm-up with jogging, passive stretching, mobility drills and progressive speed-increase sprints.

11.15am: Technical ball work and set-plays.

1.00pm: Lunch.

2.00pm: Fitness session including shuttle runs (or "doggies").

3.00pm: Technical ball work and set-plays.

4.15pm: Cool-down jog and stretches.

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