To be a professional footballer, you have to be an elite athlete. The sport is unique in its requirements, as players have to be strong, quick, agile, possess great balance, and also have the stamina to sprint often and ultimately run for 90 minutes and not get tired. They make it look so easy and fans can often forget how difficult it is for footballers to run for 90 minutes. For example, when a striker is sprinting past a defender, or sprinting through on goal to finish, most fans would expect the same whether it was the first minute or the 90th. The stamina of elite players shows as often, unless the game has gone to extra time, you hardly notice the difference in performance.
How do Footballers not get Tired & Keep Up their Performances for a Whole 90-minute Game?
Saying that footballers run for 90 minutes isn’t very accurate. When you look at the distance covered, the average for a Premier League player is approximately 10 kilometres, although this varies with player position and type of player. A decent 10k running time is under 50 minutes, and you’d expect footballers to run it a lot faster than that, so it’s clear that in the 90-minute period, footballers don’t spend all this time running. In fact, when analysing the game, it is found that footballers run for around 70 minutes of the game. The other time is spent either walking, or standing still during stoppages of play.
For those 70 minutes of running, what it really includes is jogging, walking, sprinting, jumping, backpedalling, shuffling, and turning. Most movements by footballers within the game are this type of explosive movements and sprints rather than low intensity jogging. In fact, on average, over the course of one minute, footballers will change their movement pattern 11 times. This means it is not just a case of footballers running for 90 minutes and not getting tired, but actually, a footballer’s fitness is very much based on their ability to sprint, jump, turn and shuffle regularly. The big focus here is on recovery time, and a lot of football clubs and coaches now focus on recovery times and sprints when talking about football players’ stamina. The type of training and the methods used in pre-season show how recovery times are emphasised and exactly how players can continuously sprint without getting tired.
How Footballers Run to Increase Stamina
For very high intensity work your body uses something called the ATP-PC system, for high intensity workouts it is the anaerobic system, and low intensity work uses the aerobic system. The ATP-PC system and anaerobic system are more important for football due to the high intensity movements required.
Professional player George Boyd, who has played in the Premier League for Hull City and Burnley, stated that at the start of his career, the coaches would make the players do long-distance running in training. However, he revealed that this had completely changed, and the very longest a player will run without rest is 12 minutes. Players would aim to do over 2 miles in this timeframe and this sort of run is most likely used in pre-season to work on general fitness and to maintain levels of existing fitness. In training sessions during the season, coaches now focus on shorter, sharper stuff, usually in sessions lasting around 90 minutes with only maximum effort exercises.
Here are a few examples of football stamina drills:
This exercise is a common method of fitness training as it is an easy drill just using the markings of the pitch. Box runs are sprinting from the edge of the 18-yard box to the opposite 18-yard box at maximum pace, then walking to the goal line and back, resting for approximately 20 seconds before doing the same sprint again. This is done for multiple sets
The ‘John Terry Cardio Drill’
John Terry shared his cardio workout that he does on a treadmill to keep fit during pre-season. Jump on the treadmill and set the incline to 12%. Next, set the speed to 18Km/h or whatever speed is around 80-90% of completely full-out top speed of sprinting. The aim is to run for 20 seconds and then rest for 40 seconds, repeating for 15 sets
We know that footballer fitness is not just about sprinting in straight lines. Most runs made are actually between 5m and 30m; the most common distance is about 10m. Doing 100m sprints to improve your speed for football just isn’t going to be effective. It’s not about top speed, but about effective speed. This is why agility and changing direction is incorporated into most drills.
Setup your cones in a diamond shape about 10 yards apart from each other, with one cone in the centre. Start at one of the points of the diamond facing away from the centre. When you start you turn around as quickly as possible and sprint towards the centre cone, as you reach the cone you want to decelerate around it and then accelerate out to the cone on the right. Again, as you reach this cone, decelerate and round the cone to the left and accelerate towards the final cone, which will be directly opposite from where you started.
Stop here for a short 5 second break and then repeat, this should end you up back at the starting point. This can be done in sets of 10, and is a great workout for fitness as well as building endurance in the legs.
Similarly, shuttles or ‘suicides’ are used in football. This is essentially the usual shuttle runs most people are familiar with. Cones are placed an equal distance apart which can range from a couple of metres to around 8 metres. Players sprint from the starting line to each cone, coming back to the starting line after each cone. This improves agility, speed, fitness, and practicing changing direction which is vital in a game
The Fittest Players in the Game
When you think about players with the best stamina in the game, it is usually central midfielders who epitomise the hardest working players in the game who need to do the most running in 90 minutes. Midfielders generally clock up the furthest distance covered in a game, which is why many are praised for their stamina. However as shown above, it is also about how often players can sprint and their ability to sprint at pace over and over again.
One of the greatest instances and showcases of incredible fitness was performed by Gareth Bale in the 2015 Copa del Rey final. This has become a famous goal that most football fans are familiar with, it is one of Bale’s most impressive goals, of which there is many to choose from. Real Madrid won the game 2-1 against Barcelona, and it was Bale’s 85th minute run and finish which sealed the trophy. Bale ran 59.1 metres in 7.04 seconds, completely outpacing the Barcelona defence leaving them behind before finishing past the keeper. His speed even impressed the world’s quickest man Usain Bolt, the most impressive part being that Bale started the game so clocking this outrageous speed after 85 minutes is an astonishing feat.
In terms of distance covered, the Premier League has a few stand out players. In 2019/20, only 5 players managed to cover more than 13km in a single game. The players to break the lung-busting 13km threshold were Leander Dendoncker, Dele Alli, James Milner, Tomas Soucek and Bernardo Silva. These players seem to be able to keep running all game, including multiple sprints to cover this distance. They are the kind of players that pop up everywhere, always closing down opposition players and running off the ball. Most of these players play in central midfield, which shows that this is the most common position for these super fit players. N’Golo Kante is another player known for this brilliant ability to appear to be everywhere. The season before he topped the charts for total distance covered over a season.
What about Sprints?
As a team, Liverpool are known for their high pressing game, which means that the players sprint very often to get the ball back urgently, not resting until they have regained possession. In 2018/19 Jurgen Klopp’s side completed 4,737 sprints in total throughout season, more than any other team. Players Andy Robertson and Mo Salah came 2nd and 3rd in the most sprints of any individual. The Liverpool preseason is infamous to prepare players for this style of play. Recovery time is the most important feature so that players can regain breath quickly so they are ready for their next high intensity sprint. There are plenty of reports of teams like Liverpool who prefer a high pressing, high intensity tactic who have caused their players to throw up during training sessions and pre-season due to the high intensity fitness demands.
Overall, how footballers can run for 90 minutes is down to their training methods, which have changed a lot since the advancement of sports science. Footballers don’t get tired because they don’t actually spend all the time running, but mainly do shorter sprints. Improved analysis means that clubs can now find out exactly what movements footballers need to do in a game, so training can be tailored to the style of the team.