Football Fitness – Which position runs the most and least in soccer?

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Most players tend not to love the fitness side of soccer. 11-a-side football can be a very physically demanding task for the average player. Other than the obvious minimal fitness required of a goalkeeper, we will examine who has to do the most, and least “water carrying” on the field.

Before we dive in, it’s important to note that everyone playing outfield has to run, jog or canter during different spells in the game. 

Why do we have to run so much?

The field can be very large depending what level you are playing at. Most games of football are played on either a 5,7 or 11 a side pitch. Naturally you would assume a larger pitch would be more demanding, but it’s not as simple as that. Each pitch size poses a different challenge and you will need to develop a different way of getting around the pitch.

For example, while playing on a huge 11 a side pitch, it is very rare that all the players are spread evenly across the pitch. Offsides and teams squeezing areas often means that you will be playing on a small imaginary pitch within a big pitch. If the ball is in your half, you will find the opposing team will ‘push up’ to keep the pressure in your half. The same goes for if play is on the left or right side of the pitch. Teams will normally squeeze onto a certain area to make the gaps smaller between players. This is great for the defending team and would like to give players in possession less space and time on the ball. Teams with the ball will typically try to make the pitch bigger by spreading out but if they are spread too thin it could result in less pass support. In some cases, teams on the attack will actually prefer crowded areas to do ‘pinball’ style quick passing. Often if a player is outside the “squeezing zones”, they are known to be in what is called “no mans land”, where they are unable to have any meaningful effect on the game. In many cases leaving their teammates outnumbered. We will talk about the numbers game at work in every football game in another article.

11 a side soccer is known the be more physically demanding for two main reasons:

  • You have to cover a lot more ground during transitions of play in different areas of the pitch. Travelling time is significantly longer. The ball can ping from one side to another side, so even players with great anticipation find themselves running long distances only to double back multiple times.
  • When you are defending, the player in position has notably more space to dribble into. Meaning touches can be heavier when trying to beat a player, especially when the “kick and run” dribble style is being used. On a smaller pitch a player can’t do a gigantic dribble as they will most likely run into another defender. Stride length is longer and will really push your agility and explosive running power to another limit.

5 a side soccer has some interesting differences. The pitch is much smaller, and you run from one side to another fairly easily. Players are much closer together, so you will have more pass support, and help from nearby defenders. But there is a big but, and I cannot lie…

As the pitch is smaller you will be much more engaged in play more often then a larger pitch. On a large pitch, you have less touches as the ball is spread around the pitch. The onus is more on tactical positioning, runs and marking. It is more of a game of chess.

And 5 a side? More like a game of foosball….. or Rock em sock em robots.

In this compressed space, the pace of the game feels quicker, and although you can run from one side to another much quicker, you will be doing it much more as there are less players. You will need to be up and down to help your team attack and defend. There will be players within meters from you, breathing down your neck, leaving less room for error with your touch. There will be less of a challenge on your muscles and agility, and more of anaerobic and cardiovascular challenge to keep up with the pace of the game.

7 a side is an attractive offer for many players as it offers a mix between the two experiences. If you are a new player trying to improve basics like touch, running, shooting and passing. 5 a side is great as you will have many more touches, and chances to practice your skill sets. Transitioning to 11 a side will require more mental guile and will require more athleticism. So getting in the gym in prep for 11 a side is always a great idea.

Which position the most in soccer?

Typically midfielders have been known to run the most on the pitch as they are at the centre of everything. Midfielders are required to take part in both attack and defence, as well as marshall areas near both flanks. They are also required to fill any gaps left by roaming full backs and support wide players who have been overloaded (outnumbered) by the opposition.

I will also mention that wide players also have to put a solid shift in on each flank, also taking part in attacking and defending. Usually sprinting more and covering a longer straight distance. The only reason why they may run less than a midfielder is that only a portion of the game is played on either flank. This is true for most cases with the exception of times where a team’s tactic is to overload a particular wing. A tactic usually to exploit a weak full back, winger with lackadaisical defending or to utilise excellent attacking players on that particular side.

Which position the least in soccer?

Besides the Goalkeeper, who is mostly static in goal.The striker normally seen as a player who can get away with running the least. However, this depends on their playing style and team tactics. A False 9 will be involved in the general back and forth play, running more laterally. In the 4-3-3, there will be even less lateral movement, and a player who is a “fox in the box” will primarily make shorter runs in and around the opposition’s area. If your team plays on the counter, a striker will also need to sprint at high speeds from the centre of the pitch towards the other team’s goal. Normally at lightning pace. With that said, the short and sharp runs will need to be rapid, well timed and explosive in order to be effective. A striker trades less “water carrying” work in exchange for heightened expectations from teammates to be clinical in front of goal. A striker must be very fit anaerobically so they are not tired when they are called on in key moments. A great example of a striker who demonstrated time and time again to be valuable on the counter was Fernando Torres at the height of his powers.

Other than a striker, the centre back position is seen as a position that isn’t as demanding in terms of running. Central Defenders tend to use strategic positioning more than anaerobic dexterity. They will still use a fair amount of cardiovascular energy regulating the area in and around their box, but most of the physical demands will come in the form of tackling and aerial duels.

Running requirements ranked by position

1. Central Midfielders

2. Wingers & Full Backs

3. Wide Forward Players

4. Central Defenders

5. Strikers

6.Goalkeeper

Let’s also give an honorable to the referee, who needs a decent level of fitness to keep up with the pace of the game.

How to improve your fitness and endurance during a match

If you are looking to be the driving force behind your team with the ability to “run all game” you will need to improve both your aerobic and anaerobic fitness. 

Aerobic fitness is more about endurance over long distances/periods and involves more cardiovascular performance. In between plays you will be using this type of fitness to keep up with play, moving across the pitch while positioning yourself. You will want to be able to run longer at a medium pace for longer. Long jogs typically 20 minutes or more, especially uphill and downhill without stopping will improve this aspect of your game.

Anaerobic is more geared towards short sharper movement, drawing more on the fitness of your muscles at higher intensities. You will want to be able to do high intensity movements/sprints in a controlled way with poise and quickness, and recover quickly to do it all again. Sprints, HIIT training and plyometrics will improve this side of your game.

Being more efficient with your energy

Each position on the football pitch will present a different fitness challenge for every player looking to take part. You can help conserve your energy by being smart with your running. 

  • Get into positions early by quickly running to where you will need to be in the next run of play during breaks in play. Managers will often say “Get back into position quick, then have a breather”.
  • Try to read the game and anticipate where the ball is likely to go to avoid wasting energy chasing lost causes.
  • If you are playing striker, it has been suggested by Legendary striker Thierry Henry, to make shorter, sharper runs rather than long runs to improve efficiency.

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