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How interval training improves football fitness

Many football coaches still prescribe long continuous laps around the pitch or miles on the road in an attempt to improve football fitness. However, as this article illustrates, new research is available to show footballers don't have to train this way to improve their fitness.


In one of the few studies which has explored the link between endurance capacity and football performance, Hungarian researchers showed that the ranking among the four best teams in the Hungarian top division was reflected by their players' average maximal oxygen-uptake (VO2max) values(1). Another investigation found a significant correlation between VO2max and the distance covered by players during matches, the number of sprints per match and the frequency of participation in 'decisive situations'(2).

However, until now no investigation has clearly shown that improving aerobic capacity and overall fitness boosts performance on the football field. Fortunately, that deficiency has now been remedied, thanks to the work of Jan Helgerud and his colleagues at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim(3).

Helgerud study

Players within each team were randomly assigned to either a training group or a control group. In addition to their regular football training and play (four 90-minute practices and one game per week), members of the training group performed aerobic interval training twice a week for eight weeks.

Each interval workout consisted of four discrete four-minute work intervals at 90-95% of maximal heart rate, with three-minute recoveries at 50-60% of max heart rate. Technical and tactical skills, strength and sprint training were emphasised in most practice sessions, and about one hour of each practice was devoted to mock football games.

While the training group members carried out their four-minute intervals, control soccer players engaged in extra technical training, including heading drills, free kicks and drills related to receiving the ball and changing direction.

At the beginning and end of the eight-week study period, all players were tested for VO2 max, lactate threshold, vertical jumping height, 40m sprint ability, maximal kicking velocity and the technical ability to kick a football through defined targets.


After eight weeks of twice-weekly interval training, the players in the training group had improved VO2 max by almost 11%, from 58.1 to 64.3; meanwhile the control group players had not improved their VO2 max at all. Similarly, lactate-threshold running speed improved by 21% and running economy by 6.7% in the training group, while control group failed to improve at all.

All of these physiological markers translated into improved performances on the football field. Interval-trained athletes increased the total distance covered during games by 20% (from 8,619 to 10,335m) and doubled the number of times they sprinted during games. Furthermore, after eight weeks of interval training the number of involvements with the ball per game increased by 24%, from 47 to 59. Involvements were defined as situations in which a player was either in physical contact with the ball or applying direct pressure to an opponent in possession of the ball.

Interval training also boosted the athletes' overall ability to play at high intensity. Players were able to perform at an average of 85.6% of max heart rate during their games, compared with just 82.7% beforehand. Training group members also spent 19 minutes longer than controls in the high-intensity zone (ie above 90% of max heart rate) during an actual game.

Of course, interval training isn't a panacea, and sprint speed, squatting strength, bench-press strength, jumping height, kicking velocity and the technical shooting and passing test were unchanged by the aerobic work, as you might expect.

Training recomendations

What other interval workouts besides the Norwegians' 4x4-minute scheme might be beneficial for football? Some of the renowned French scientist Veronique Billat's 'v VO2max' sessions would be helpful, since they are very intense in nature and lead to enhancements in VO2max, lactate threshold, and running economy.

Two of Veronique's workouts should be particularly beneficial:

  • The 30-30
    To perform this workout, athletes should simply warm up effectively, then alternate 30 seconds of running at close to max intensity with 30 seconds of easy ambling. Initially, they should go for 10 reps, but as aerobic capacity improves they can simply keep going until fatigue kicks in.
  • The 3-3
    This is like 30-30, except that athletes alternate three minutes of hard running with three minutes of loping. The pace for the strenuous three-minute intervals should be determined by the best-possible speed achieved during a six-minute test. Re-tests of six-minute velocity will be needed every 4-6 weeks-or-so, since running capacity should improve. Few athletes should try to complete more than five three-minute intervals per workout.


The very simple interval training programme in Helgerud et al's study (3), produced some dramatic improvements in overall play. Put simply, boosting VO2max, lactate threshold and running economy with interval routines gives players an enhanced ability to cover longer running distances at higher intensities during games. In addition it enables them to be involved with the ball more frequently and thus play a greater role in deciding the outcomes of competitions. So, in several key ways, football counts as an 'endurance sport', since it places a high demand on the cardiovascular system and since performance ability appears to hinge on physiological variables such as VO2max, lactate threshold and running economy. Thus, performing the types of interval workouts used by endurance athletes may be helpful to football players.

Owen Anderson
(Edited by Alan Ruddock)

Courtesy of


1.Science and Football, T Reilly, A Lees, K Davids, and WJ Murphy (Eds). London: E & F N Spon, 1988, pp 95-107
2. Proceedings of the 1st International Congress on Sports Medicine Applied to Football, Rome, 1980, L Vecchiet (Ed) Rome: D Guanillo, 1980, pp 795-801
3. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, vol 33(11), pp 1925-1931, 2001

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