Training aerobic capacity for improved performance in team sports

Female Soccer player
Author:  Aaron Coutts and Grant Abt
Issue: Volume 27 Number 4


There are many important physiological characteristics required for improved performance in players and officials in team sports (such as the football codes, field hockey, basketball, etc.). Although each of these sports has its own distinctive skills, tactics and movement patterns, they all have similar physiological demands such as high aerobic power, high lactate tolerance and increased anaerobic capacity (Bangsbo 2000) . These physiological capacities allow the team-sport player to repeat sprints often with quite short recovery periods over a prolonged duration. This type of activity is commonly referred to as Prolonged High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise.

Determining the most important characteristic to train for these types of Prolonged High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise sports can be quite difficult. Will you get better results training for speed, speed endurance, interval training, or game-specific skills? Common sense tells us that there is no one correct answer. Rather, team-sport players can have different training demands as they all have their own strengths and weaknesses and each position in a team usually has a different role to play. In this article, we will present some recent research findings that may help you plan your training so your team-sport players can perform at their highest level. In particular, we will present some recent research examining the relationship between lactate threshold, VO 2max and Prolonged High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise performance in team sports. These studies have provided coaches of team sports with useful information that will assist in improving on-field performance.

Physiological demands of team sports

Typically, field-based team sports require participants to be able to cover large distances of between eight and 12 kilometres, as well as regularly reproduce maximal or near maximal sprints over the course of a match (60–120 minutes). Previous time and motion studies have reported that a large percentage of both the total time and distance covered during a match is performed at lower intensities (Reilly and Gilbourne 2003) . Consequently, the aerobic system makes the most significant contribution to energy delivery during team-sport play. Furthermore, the ability to tolerate high lactic acid levels, have increased lactic acid removal rates and improved creatine phosphate resynthesis are all important characteristics for maintaining a high performance during this type of activity (Bangsbo 2000) .

Important components of aerobic fitness

Before we examine the influence of increasing aerobic power on Prolonged High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise performance, we will explain some of the important measures of aerobic power.

Maximal oxygen uptake ( VO 2max)

Maximal oxygen uptake or, as it is commonly called, VO 2max, is the maximum amount of oxygen that your body consumes per minute during endurance exercise. VO 2max is important for Prolonged High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise as it is an important determinant of the ability to sustain high-intensity exercise for longer than four to five minutes (McArdle et al. 2001) .

Lactate threshold

Lactate threshold refers to the highest exercise intensity that can be maintained with less than a 1.0 mmol .L -1 increase in blood lactate above the pre-exercise level (McArdle et al. 2001) . This exercise intensity is commonly thought to be the maximum that an individual can maintain for a prolonged duration of exercise.

The research

Research on players

A recent study by prominent Norwegian researchers examined the effect of aerobic training on VO 2max and soccer match performance (Helgerud et al. 2001) in 19 high-level youth soccer players. The results from this study demonstrated that eight weeks of extra interval training significantly increased VO 2max by 10.8 per cent, treadmill running velocity at lactate threshold by 13.1 per cent and increased running efficiency (amount of oxygen used for the same speed) by 6.7 per cent. Importantly, the results also demonstrated that increased aerobic fitness did not affect sprinting velocity, weightlifting strength, jumping power or kicking accuracy.

Other match analysis results showed that the increased aerobic fitness:

  • increased work intensity during a game
  • prevented a second-half reduction in work during the game
  • doubled the number of sprints completed in a game
  • allowed players to be involved in more ‘decisive’ plays
  • allowed players to cover a greater distance during a game.

These findings demonstrate that an increased aerobic capacity offers significant performance benefits in sports that require intermittent sprints over a longer period.

Research on officials

Similar results have also been observed for referees and officials (Castagna and D’Ottavio 2001; Krustrup and Bangsbo 2001; Castagna, Abt and D’Ottavio 2002) . The combined results of these studies show that:

  • officials with higher aerobic fitness run further during a game
  • fitter referees spend less time standing and walking during a match
  • fitter referees are able to remain closer to ‘the play’ which most likely will improve their ability to closely watch ‘the play’.

Taken together, the findings of these studies suggest that by improving aerobic capacity, the distance covered during a game may be increased, athletes will be more involved in the game and will be able to spend more time exercising at high intensity.

Although the examples provided come from research on soccer players and referees, the physiology of most team sports is similar. Accordingly, we suggest that the same physiological responses will apply to most other field-based team sports when aerobic power is increased.

So, how do you do it?

Designing physical training programs to improve aerobic power is only limited by the coach’s imagination. Various methods can be used to improve aerobic capacity, however research suggests that high-intensity, sport-specific training will deliver the greatest performance benefit.

High-intensity interval training has previously been used to show large improvements in team-sport athletes’ aerobic fitness in relatively short time periods (Hoff and Helgerud 2004) . In particular, running interval exercises at an intensity of 90–95 per cent of HR max for an effort/interval duration of three to eight minutes are recommended. Recovery or rest periods between efforts/intervals should be at approximately 60–70 per cent HR max for ~3 minutes. Depending on your athletes’ fitness levels, you should expect an increase in VO 2max of between 10–30 per cent over an eight to ten week period. When intervals are completed at lower intensities of 60–80 per cent HR max smaller increases of 5–10 per cent would be expected over this period.

The advantage of using interval training is that workloads can be easily controlled and all players can be easily observed during training. However, you should always ensure that your players properly warm up prior to high-intensity interval training and be sure to complete some aerobic base training before implementing this type of training with your athletes. We recommend prescribing interval by distance and starting only a few interval efforts in a session. Once your players adapt, gradually progress the number of intervals completed over time. As this type of training is very demanding, you should not complete interval training of this nature more than twice a week. Finally, to ensure that you protect your athletes from injury and overtraining, be sure to allow for regular recovery weeks and recovery days following these hard sessions.

An alternative method for developing sport-specific aerobic fitness is with modified small-sided games (Coutts 2002) . These methods of conditioning appear to be gaining popularity with coaches and players. The advantages of this type of training are that it can be used to simulate game situations, you can incorporate game-specific drills and, most of all, players seem to enjoy it! We have recently completed a study here at the Univeristy of Technology, Sydney, comparing the influence of adding extra high-intensity interval training versus extra high-intensity small-sided games to the normal training routine in female touch football players (Coutts and Sirotic 2004) . In this study, both the interval training group and small games group completed 5–7 four minute efforts at approximately 90 per cent HR max with three minutes rest between efforts. After three weeks of training, aerobic fitness performance measured during team-sport match simulation (measured on a non-motorised treadmill) was improved by 10 per cent in both the small games training group and the interval training group. These results show that high-intensity, small games training is a viable alternative training method to traditional interval running training for team-sport players.

In summary, we suggest both interval and small games training methods for increasing aerobic fitness in team-sport players and officials. As a general guide, completing between 15–30 minutes of high-intensity exercise by either interval training or small games training and keeping your athletes’ heart rate above 90 per cent of HR max should be sufficient to gain increased fitness benefit. Beginners or less-fit athletes should start at the lower end of this range.


Research suggests that increasing aerobic capacity will improve performance in team players and officials by allowing them to cover greater distance during a game at higher intensity. Furthermore, they will also increase the number of sprints completed throughout a game, decrease fatigue levels at the end of a game and increase their involvement with ‘the play’. As a coach, you can improve aerobic capacity through well-planned high-intensity training using either interval training or modified games. By implementing these sessions carefully into your training program, you will be able to increase your athletes’ on-field performance.


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