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The Real Home-Field Advantage pt.3

Updated: Jul 3

Ever wondered what happens behind the scenes at a club’s training ground? Every team tries to create its ‘secret sauce’ for them to perform better and improve faster than the opposing teams. Whether the goal of the day is recovery, improving strength, endurance, or explosiveness or preparation before the game, you plan your training session to the smallest detail to achieve a specific training effect and refine your physical traits. Prepare your body with sufficient rest, nutrition, and hydration. Check your equipment and plan the session in at the perfect moment. Everything covered? The surface you train on will affect your performance and training results, but how do you select the right one?

In the previous volume of The Real Home-Field Advantage we discussed how spatial within-field variability affects player’s performance and safety. Dissimilarities do not only occur over different zones in the pitch but surfaces also change over time. Within this blog series we merge two interacting entities: the athlete and the surface. Today we will dive into physical periodisation and choosing the optimal pitch that supports your short- and long-term training goals.

To optimally prepare and improve players to perform at the highest level, the coaching staff plan training sessions based on the principle of periodisation. The main goal of physical periodisation is to optimally use the available time between the games to improve players’ physical capacities and regain freshness to peak performance during the games. This way of planning involves different levels, where the macro-cycles are dependent on the competition format and set to build up to peak performance. Usually defined by the two halves of the season with potentially a third cycle: play-offs. Meso-cycles function on a multiple week approach to have sufficient time for the athlete’s body to adapt to the training impulse. Each meso-cycle can focus on different physical traits (endurance, interval, power, or speed). A micro-cycle is the smallest timeframe to periodise and is usually fit to one week where match congestion is the golden rule to plan in the training sessions. Within that week-periodisation some sessions are focussed on improving the recovery after the game, matchday preparation or functional overload and pushing the bar on the physical trait of the meso-cycle.

Micro-cycles: Match the pitch to your training goals

Each day of the week has a different goal in relation to the previous or the upcoming game. The preparation of the staff and players are tailored to each distinctive session to optimally trigger the right training impulse. From the moment the players walk out on the field, they are immediately affected by the surface they run on. Up to 72 hours after an intense game there still is some residual fatigue in the body. That means that usually the two days after a game are considered as a recovery period. During the recovery phase players aren’t exposed to the heavy loads but rather a low intensity session where the amount of shock that returns to muscles, tendons and joint is low. After the recovery phase players get into more intense training sessions. Physical and S&C coaches aim to improve not only the players physiological capacity but also build resilience to a high amount of sprinting and high-speed running. This is necessary for the players to be prepared and robust enough to perform maximally on match days.

As session goals vary, clubs are starting to pick a training pitch which’s playability characteristics match the aimed stimulus. As recovery sessions aim to have minimal stress on the musculoskeletal structures, comfortable compliant surfaces are given preference. When aiming to increase the robustness of players, coaching staff tends to put players in ‘worst case scenarios’ for them to learn to cope with the maximal intensity and stressing periods of match play. Muscle and tendon tissue has a limited load capacity which can be trained and improved gradually. Players train to be able to do more (volume), faster (intensity) sprints or runs and maintain high quality (quick recovery). When only training sprints on a compliant surface whilst they would do sprints on a firm stadium pitch, players still are underprepared for that ‘worst case scenario’ of the game. The firmer the surface, the higher the amount of stress musculoskeletal tissue needs to withstand during a sprint. Just like for recovery sessions, clubs are aiming to gradually improve the players’ load capacity and robustness in conditions approximating match play. Staff are nowadays choosing the optimal pitch to achieve the intended training results. This approach is quite logical as all other forms of preparation like nutrition, hydration, pre-activation drills, periodisation, fatigue monitoring… all aim to better prepare players for a session and achieve the best achievable training results.

Macro/Meso-cycle: Changing pitch conditions and preparation

Figure 1 - Rennie (2019)

The main aim of periodisation is optimal preparation for short- and long-term performance benefits during competitive match play. Although grounds staff are maintaining the pitches to be consistent, there are fluctuations in the playing conditions throughout the season. These changes are induced by use, climatic conditions, and build-up of organic debris in the turf. Surface hardness fluctuates throughout the season significantly. Rennie (2019) conducted an 8-year study in a professional elite association football club from 2008 to 2016 where the playing surface was tested before each training session and game. Relative hardness ranged between 51 and 128G whilst a gradual increase was found over the course of this study whilst 4% of the exposures were at unacceptable levels according to UEFA’s guidelines (2018). Relative hardness showed seasonal variability, being softest over the winter months and peaks towards May. Thomson et al. (2019) found that footwear and grass type significantly affects peak rotational traction and highlights the fluctuation throughout the season. “The current data shows that the variability within a single season is large enough to warrant tailoring across different months.”

Figure 2 - Thomson et al. (2019) – AG: Artificial Ground shoe; FG: Firm Ground shoe; SG: Soft Ground shoe; WS: Warm Season grass; CS: Cool Season grass

Previously we discussed how the body needs time to adapt and improve physical traits with consecutive periodised training impulses. When preparing players in the long term, it is therefore of high importance players are gradually exposed to a multitude of playing conditions to improve the body’s familiarity and robustness towards a broad spectrum of playing conditions. When exposed to a variety of playing conditions, players learn to adapt their motricity and behavior. Subconsciously, athletes adapt their gait and foot placement based on the sensation of the foot-surface interaction, for example: a higher amount of grip makes players place their foot further away from their center of mass when changing direction or accelerating. The familiarity with high and low traction surfaces makes it easier for players to be efficient in their movement which in turn also reduces the risk of injury. As surfaces become firmer during springtime (Rennie, 2019), players need to be able to produce higher eccentric forces to cope with the greater ground reaction forces of each step during high-speed running and sprinting. Within rehabilitation it is well known that restoring and improving tissue load capacity is essential for return to play. Building robustness and adaptability of the athlete is a major contributor to injury prevention programs.

Practitioners and academics agree there is a great need to take the playing surface into account when planning training sessions, assessing training loads, injury risks... and vouch for frequent objective testing and integration of player-surface interaction in the continuous monitoring practices of professional sports team.

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