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Physical Demands on the Soccer Player

This is an excerpt from Soccer Anatomy-2nd Edition by Donald T. Kirkendall & Adam L. Sayers.

Many years ago, if you asked someone how far a player runs in a soccer match, he might have estimated 10 miles. If you do the math, 10 miles in 90 minutes results in 9 minutes per mile; this is doable. But a typical field is 110 yards (100 m) long, and 10 miles is 16,000 meters. That would mean a player would have to run the length of the field 145 times at a constant 9-minute-per-mile pace to accumulate 10 miles; this is not likely.

Tracking a player's running distance isn't easy. People have used a paper and pencil coding system (at matches or while watching video replays), step counters, GPS, and more. No matter what the method, gathering the data is labor intensive and time consuming, although recent and rapid developments in technology have made this process easier, more accurate, and more time efficient to the point of match data being captured in real-time. Those who study the physical demands of soccer generally agree that the average running distance in adult male professional soccer is between 6 and 8.5 miles (9,700 to 13,700 m). Adult female professional soccer players run about 5 miles (8,000 m), but there are reports of female midfielders covering the 6 miles (9,700 m) males run. The total distance is obviously less in younger players, who play a slower and shorter game.

Since soccer is played at many different paces, the distance is divided according to speed. The general observation is that one-half to two-thirds of the game is played at the slower, more aerobic paces of walking and jogging. The rest is at higher, more anaerobic paces plus sideways and backward running. In addition, distances vary by position. Central attacking and holding midfielders cover the most distance followed by wing midfielders and defenders, strikers, and finally central defenders. Some call the slower paces positional intensities (get to the right place on the field) and the faster paces strategic intensities (make something happen).

Matches may be won or lost by a strategically timed sprint, so many select teams look carefully for fast, skilled, and tactically savvy players, understanding that endurance can be improved by training. In general, sprints in soccer are 10 to 30 yards (9 to 27 m) long and happen every 45 to 90 seconds. The overall distance an adult male professional player covers at a sprint is roughly 800 to 1,000 yards (730 to 910 m), although in 10- to 30-yard (9 to 27 m) chunks. Hard runs (cruising) happen every 30 to 60 seconds. The time between these hard runs is spent walking, jogging, or standing.

During the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia, the average total distance covered, across all participating teams, was 104.6 kilometers per match for the 10 outfield players. This ranged from 113 kilometers per match (Serbia) to 97.1 kilometers per match (Panama). Divide that by 10 (the number of field players on a team)to find an estimate of each player's total distance covered.

Data can be further analyzed according to position. A positional analysis by the FIFA Technical Committee at the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup Canada revealed that central midfield players covered the most total distance per match on average, averaging 11,230 meters. They were followed by wide midfield players (10,902 m) and forwards (10,781 m). Of the outfield positions, central defenders covered the least—10,020 meters. Goalkeepers covered 5,521 meters on average per match. Taking the wide midfield position as an example, the total distance covered of 10,902 meters consisted of 3,854 meters while their team had the ball, 3,635 meters while their team did not have the ball, and 3,413 meters while the ball was out of play.

Again taking the wide midfield position as an example, the total distance covered can be broken down to various speed thresholds:

0 to 6 kilometers/hour: 2,964 meters

6 to 12 kilometers/hour: 4,507 meters

12 to 16 kilometers/hour: 1,929 meters

16 to 18 kilometers/hour: 534 meters

18 to 20 kilometers/hours: 393 meters

20 to 23 kilometers/hour: 224 meters

> 23 kilometers/hour: 351 meters

Additionally, the number of bouts, average distance of each bout, and recovery time between each bout for each position at each threshold can be recorded. The wide midfield position is again used in the example shown in table 1.1.

Table 1.1 Frequency, Distance, and Recovery Times for Match Running Speeds

Profiles such as the one shown here for 2015 Golden Ball winner Carli Lloyd can also be built to analyze individual player performance.

Player: Carli Lloyd

Main playing position: Central midfield/forward

Total distance (match avg.): 11,685 meters

Distance covered at 16 to 20 kilometers/hour: 1,214 meters

Distance covered at > 20 kilometers/hour: 429 meters

Average speed: 7.4 kilometers/hour

Average maximum speed: 30.1 kilometers/hour

Data obtained using GPS technology from an NCAA Division 1 women's team during the 2018 season shows an average total distance covered per match (among players who completed 90 minutes of play) of 9,520 meters. This included a match-average distance covered at more than 18 kilometers/hour of 428 meters (27 bouts), and a match-average distance covered at more than 15 kilometers/hour of 962 meters (76 bouts). Additionally, the average number of changes of direction per match was 271, ranging from 375 per match (central defender) to 143 (outside defender).

The physiological load on a player when running at any speed is increased by about 15 percent when the player is dribbling a ball. Therefore, one simple way to increase the intensity of any activity is for players to dribble. Small-sided games (4v4 or smaller) that increase the number of ball-contact opportunities are usually more intense than games played in larger groups (8v8 or more) during which ball contact is less frequent and players have more opportunities to stand and walk.