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Nine of the 11 players of the latest 2013 FIFA FIFPro World XI were active at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Prior to this event, these nine players played on average 51 official matches during the 2013-14 season, with a mean match duration of 82 minutes. After four to six additional weeks of training and competition related to the World Cup tournament and a few weeks off to recover, these nine world's biggest stars as well as the other 727 World Cup players joined the rest of their squads in order to prepare for the forthcoming season. On all continents, most of the national competitions have already kicked off.

World Cup and start of 2014/2015 season

The table below gives an overview of the number of footballers playing in a certain continent that were involved at the World Cup and the start (range) of their national competitions. Several competitions in the Middle and South Americas started in late July while World Cup players from the Major League Soccer (around 17 players) did not benefit from any official competition recess. In Europe (the continent where the most World Cup players are employed) many competitions (Belgium, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, France, the Netherlands, Russia, Switzerland) started before mid-August, concerning around 110 World Cup players.

  During World Cup Earliest Latest
Africa 9 20-7 16-8
Americas 100 Ongoing 17-8
Asia 43 5-7 10-10
Europe 513 18-7 30-8

 

With regard to the aforementioned, the question arises whether the consecutive international and national competitions are adequately programmed and balanced in order to provide professional footballers with sufficient recovery and protect their sustainable health. While scientific studies have explored the effect of playing many matches over a short period of time (match congestion), research into the effect of a short or long period of recovery between seasons (detraining) on performances and sustainable health are lacking.

(Over)Load and recovery

For a training/competition programme in any sport discipline, an optimum balance between the physical load and the recovery of athletes should be maintained in order to enhance performance and avoid health problems. The principle of training relies on the consecutive sequence of (over)load, recovery and adaptation, a sequence vital to optimum performance of athletes. As the human body can adapt to loads that exceed the usual demands, overload can be achieved by gradually and progressively increasing training loads (volume, intensity). As illustrated in the figure below, fatigue occurs during and after any (over)load (stimulus), and rest is required in order to recover properly from the previous load (compensation). Then, after sufficient recovery (act of restoring something or someone to a satisfactory state), adaptation (overcompensation) occurs, which is a key parameter to the enhancement of any performance. As the human body adapts, overloading must continue over time, otherwise the effect will plateau and further improvement will not occur. Of course, this general overload principle is slightly different from one type of physical load to another (aerobic, anaerobic).

VG periodisation

Periodisation and detraining

Periodisation refers to the cyclical pattern of alternating the sequence of (over)load, recovery and adaptation in order to improve the athlete’s performance. Detraining refers to the partial or complete loss of training-induced adaptations ((over)load-recovery-adaptation) as a consequence of either the cessation of training or a substantial decrement in the training load. In order to avoid health-related problems and improve both individual and team performances, the challenge of any football coach is to find an optimum balance between (over)loads and recovery (Coutts 2008). This balance should be found in the short term, for instance from one training session to another or from one week to another, but also in the longer term, for instance from the first half of the season to the second half, or from one season to another (Coutts 2008).

Of course, coaches need to take the (international and domestic) competition calendar into account in order to balance optimally loads and recovery (periodisation in macro-, meso- and micro-cycles), which is not always easy to do (Coutts 2008). Many professional clubs play in a continental competition in combination with the national competitions (league, cups…), which leads to many official matches for players over a long season. For the top players, continental or international team competitions (qualification, tournament) have to be played during or after the season, as recently with the World Cup in Brazil. When it comes to the balance between (over)loads and recovery, and thus to the health and safety of professional footballers, the question remains how many days between matches are necessary to allow an optimum recovery. Also, how many weeks off after a season – detraining – should be given to the players in order to recover completely from the previous season and prepare optimally for the forthcoming one?

VG calendar

Recovery between matches

Several studies were conducted about the influence of match congestion (too many matches and not enough recovery) on the occurrence of musculoskeletal (bone, muscles, joints etc.) injuries. In particular, studies by a well-known research group from Sweden (Ekstrand, Hagglund and Walden) have been exploring the influence of many matches (and short recovery) due to continental (e.g. Champions League) and domestic calendar on the occurrence of injuries. In 2004, Ekstrand and colleagues evaluated the correlation between the exposure of footballers in top European clubs to match play during the season before the 2002 World Cup and the injuries and performances of these players during that competition. World Cup players did not show any increased risk of injury during that season compared to those who did not participate, but 32 % performed below their normal standard (Ekstrand 2004).

In a recent publication by the same research group, the influence of match congestion on injury rates and team performance was presented (Bengtsson 2013). The exposure to match play and occurrence of (time-loss) injuries from 27 teams were registered over 11 seasons, matches being grouped and used for comparison according to recovery days before each match (≤3 compared with >3 days; ≤4 with ≥6 days). The authors found that a short period of recovery between matches (≤3 days) was associated with more matches lost (Bengtsson 2013). Total injury rates and muscle injury rates were increased in league matches with ≤4 days compared with ≥6 days’ recovery, specifically hamstring and quadriceps injuries (Bengtsson 2013).

Based on their study, the authors concluded that match congestion was associated with increased muscle injury rates but had no, or very limited, influence on team performance (Bengtsson 2013). The previous findings are in line with those of Dupont and colleagues (2010). In their study conducted over two consecutive seasons, the authors analysed the effects of two matches per week on the physical performance and the injury rate in male elite soccer players (Dupont 2010). It appeared that the recovery time between two matches (72 to 96 hours) was sufficient to maintain the level of physical performance (total distance covered, high-intensity distance, sprint distance, number of sprints) but was not long enough to maintain a low injury rate: players playing rqo matches a week had a significantly higher risk of injury than players playing one match a week (Dupont 2010).

Detraining between seasons

The training periodisation of athletes needs to involve a detraining period (partial or complete cessation of training) after the main event of the season in order to allow recovery and regeneration before the start of a new season (Bompa, 1999; Issurin, 2008). Scientific studies exploring the optimum duration of detraining between two football seasons are scarce. From a rather practical point of view which is more or less accepted in professional football, the duration of a detraining period between two seasons is typically four to six weeks. The consequence of such a post-season period, as well as whether such a detraining period is optimal to prepare for a following season, is difficult to establish, especially from one individual to another. While a few days of rest or reduced training will not impair and might even enhance performance, training reduction or complete inactivity for several weeks might induce some relevant (physical, physiological, neurological, metabolic, psychological etc.) changes. For instance, endurance performance decreases by between 4 and 25 % as a consequence of a detraining period of 3-4 weeks or longer (Bosquet 2012).

Consequently, the detraining period given to the players between two football seasons should be optimal: not too long in order to avoid losing too much key capacity and not too short in order to allow sufficient recovery and regeneration from the previous season. As in most team sports, performances in professional football rely on technical, tactical, physical and psychological capacities. As technical and tactical capacities are not significantly sensitive to the duration of detraining, in the main, physical and psychological needs for optimum recovery and regeneration between two seasons should be taken into account, especially endurance (cardio-respiratory and muscular), strength, power, speed and flexibility. As many competitions and thus preparation periods started soon after the World Cup 2014, the question remains whether the nine players of the 2013 FIFA FIFPro World XI who were active in Brazil (as well as many other players) have had sufficient time for recovery and regeneration. Maybe in the short term but what about the long term?

Key points

  • The principle of training relies on the consecutive sequence of (over)load, recovery and adaptation, a sequence vital to optimum performance of any athlete.
  • Within a football season, the challenge of any football coach is to find an optimum balance between (over)loads and recovery (periodisation), recovery being essential in order to avoid injuries and improve performance.
  • After a football season, an optimum detraining period (partial or complete cessation of training) should be given to the players in order to allow recovery and regeneration before the start of a new season.
  • Total injury rates and muscle injury rates were increased in league matches with ≤4 days compared with ≥6 days' recovery, specifically hamstring and quadriceps injuries.
  • Physical and psychological needs for an optimum recovery and regeneration between two seasons should be principally taken into account, especially endurance, strength, power, speed and flexibility.

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