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Running Hills for Soccer Fitness

Studies show no deleterious effects on elite 10 year old athletes when they engage in 30 minutes of sustained running at up to 8% grade under a psychrometer reading differential of 4 or higher at 22 or fewer degrees centigrade.

Okay, I made that up. But, does it really matter? Parents and non-elite 10 year old athletes would take a dim view of the necessity for training the same way as fully grown athletes.

I coached a high school team that had a tradition of taking a team run over the hills and trails of their town before every practice session. Among them was a player who also happened to be a pre-Olympic caliber 800 meter runner and had signed with a division I track program. Her track coach was at every game…biting her nails. My view of their tradition was that it did not hurt them, gave them a team identity, strengthened their resolve and enhanced their visibility. But, the track coach and I both agreed it was probably not having the touted physiological training effect.

Here in Auburn, one participant in my FUNdamental SOCCER license coaching course was a multiple winner of the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. He kept playing all 6 hours on Saturday and probably still went for a training run that evening. Go, Coach Tim!

Sport specificity would hold that cross country runners would do well training on hills and for fun could cross training playing soccer. There is little lateral movement for cross country or track. Run fast, turn left. On the other hand, soccer involves quite a bit of explosive action both laterally and vertically. And it is all done using both anaerobic and aerobic energy systems.

So, for 10 year old non-elite players, let’s look for something that lasts 30 minutes or more for the aerobic effect and is not soccer, for the cross training effect. Sound like a tough bill to fill? There is an easy answer- low-organized games.

As a former physical educator in the elementary grades I really miss seeing kids play team games. I see plenty of kids at my fitness club participating in structured programs. I know we have structured sports programs- youth soccer, Little League, youth basketball, etc. But, when was the last time anybody has seen a bunch of kids playing outside in a group of 6 or more on their own? Kids have lost the capacity to play without supervision and to make up games they adjudicate on their own.

Growing up, I got plenty of what I now know as aerobic exercise in a sport skill enhancing context when I simply played with my friends. The chasing and tag games outlawed in Massachusetts playgrounds were what made my friends and me capable of repeated short bursts of movement with twists and turns for an aerobically sustained period of at least the half an hour during what should have been piano practice. And the dodge ball games now outlawed in Oregon taught me to face sideways-on to a target or thrower, looking all around as I played. Sure, I probably got hit and went home crying, but I went home crying after losing in the 4th grade spelling bee final, too.

But, I digress. What I am advocating for here is to have the coach take the kids out for 30 minutes of low organized aerobic games.

When I coached at the division I level, we took the players out for Ultimate Frisbee on the beach. It was a great aerobic game of non-soccer specific skill. The players who understood when the transition from offense to defense was imminent were the ones who really stood out in that game. As well, it provided the stop/start/turn/burst challenges on a surface that strengthened lower leg muscles. Coaching division III softball, I used a dodge ball game with what are called Gator Balls for a warm up activity that raised heart rates to an aerobic level. Capture the Flag was a great aerobic low organized tag-type game that worked really well on a soccer field. Using the midline as the delineator, the goal as jail (in true historical soccer fashion where gaols were the first goals) and the penalty boxes as the home-free base, a training vest was used for each flag. The game constantly reset and the team played for hours. When training got stale, I had The New Games Book on my desk and captains would browse through it with a suggestion that we might play “Dho” or “Earth Ball”.

Continuously resetting constant flow games work best when cross training soccer players aerobically. Running hills does not hurt, but why treat kids like miniature adults? Ask your local elementary physical educator for some low-organized game ideas. Do them continuously for 30 minutes or more and your team will benefit more specifically to the challenges of soccer (start/stop/turn/burst) as well as increasing their lung power. And all of those tag games and dodge ball activities are what made me a division I athlete, even if the big kids did head-hunt and the parents didn’t watch.

Diane Boettcher

Diane Boettcher is a Soccer Bon Vivant, Former Physical Educator in Elementary Grades, High School, College, and University. She is an Olympic Development Program coach with coaching licenses from the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA), Holland (KNVB), and the English (FA).