Football clubs are failing to factor in fixture congestion when it comes to the intensity of weekly training sessions, new Liverpool Hope University research has suggested.
And it could be putting players at risk of injury, particularly in the lower leagues.
A team of experts from Hope examined a group of semi-professional footballers in England over the course of a full 33 week season.
Through GPS tracking data the Hope academics analysed the players ‘training load’ - including duration, distance run, high speed distance covered and acceleration.
And they compared the training stats between weeks where the team played just one game, and weeks where they played out two fixtures.
To their ‘surprise’, the academics found little in the way of training reduction or periodisation in the double-game weeks.
In fact, running stats were often higher and even more intense in the days leading up to a game at times of fixture congestion.
One of the study’s co-authors Dr James Malone, Senior Lecturer in Coaching Science at Hope, says the research could prove even more important in the coming season - as many players in the lower leagues won’t have played a match since March, when fixtures were scrapped due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
He adds: "Together with other published work, we know that overloading players through accumulated training and match load can lead to increased injury risk if not done in a structured manner.
“As semi-professional players don’t have the luxuries afforded to them like those higher up the footballing pyramid, such as individual fitness coaches and nutritionists, it’s important that we highlight these potential issue areas and suggest ways to minimise any risks.
“At this level, the matches play a huge role in providing the overall load, but if training in between is not managed appropriately and players aren’t rotated, then this could lead to injuries and underperformance down the line.”
The study's lead author William Swallow, a Sport Science Phd student now with Celtic FC, also says clubs need to be aware of the dangers.
Writing in the International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching (IJSSC), Swallow warns: “Our data suggests that there appears to be a progressive reduction in Training Load in the lead up to competitive matches.
“However, when faced with congested ?xture scheduling, Training Load was kept similar at MD-2 (two days before a game) and MD-1 (one day before a game) compared with a one match per week scenario.
“Coaches and sports science practitioners should manipulate their Training Load prescription based on the different match week scenarios to appropriately periodize their training practices to ensure maximal preparation and minimize injury risk.”
Swallow points out that teams higher up the football pyramid can afford to keep training intensity levels high no matter the fixture list because they’re able to rotate a large squad.
Semi-professional teams, however, don’t have that luxury.
And Swallow says it’s vital coaches are clued-up about the risks.
He explains: “It is well considered in relation to professional match analyses that congested schedules can result in impairments of tactical and physical performance, and if not appropriately managed, can result in increased injury risk.
“It would therefore be expected that practitioners would consider this, and ultimately manage Training Load practices in the lead up and between congested schedules to cope with the potential enhanced demands placed upon the players during match-play.”
But that’s not the training pattern his team found.
The 24 outfield players they monitored were employed by a team in the English National League North - the sixth tier of English football.
Encouragingly, Swallow noted an overall gradual ‘tapering’ off of training in the days leading up to a match.
But he also noticed how the volume of ‘acceleration efforts’ within training remained similar across all training days in the lead up to matches, largely because of a reliance on small sided games as part of daily drills.
He adds: “Whilst small sided games are an important training tool to induce a signi?cant internal Training Load response, they can often overemphasise the biomechanical responses, and thus potentially increasing fatigue and injury risk.”
Meanwhile the team found that ‘total distance’ covered and ‘player load’ were both higher the day before a match in weeks where the team played twice, compared to when the team played once.
Swallow comments: “In addition, High Speed Running distance was similar across both MD-2 (two days before a game) and MD-1 (one day before a game) in both match per week scenarios, which indicates that ?xture congestion was not factored in when planning training intensity over higher velocities.”
Speaking about how previous research from France had found significant increases in injury during weeks where teams played twice instead of just once, he added: “This would suggest that coaches need to adjust their Training Load between matches in order to account for this increased accumulated match load.
“Although Training Load may arguably be able to be maintained in professional soccer due to the use of squad rotation practices, 40% of players are required to complete all matches during a two or three game microcycle.
“Due to ?nancial limitations, and the subsequent limitations this may have on squad sizes, the ability to rotate players for congested matches is potentially less achievable in semi-professional soccer and, as such, the manipulation of weekly Training Load in the build-up to congested schedules is of particular importance for this cohort.
“Therefore, it could be suggested that practitioners need to evaluate their match day structure across different match week scenarios as per the present study to gain further insight into their periodization practices.”
While Swallow and his researchers point out that they studied the habits of just one semi-professional team, they say it may be indicative of other training methods in the lower leagues and such analysis provides insight for practitioners and coaches when planning training.