Somehow, when you were younger, sprinting from one end of the pitch to the other to cover for your rush goalkeeper didn’t make you want to vom on the sidelines. But, along came life and suddenly you’re left wondering, ‘Am I actually fit enough to play anymore?’
But as the football season draws near, and with five-a-side football rapidly overtaking the 11-a-side game as the most popular amateur sport in the UK, now’s the perfect time to lace up your football boots and take to the pitch. Don’t worry about your fitness levels, getting back to basics will get you match ready far quicker than you think.
The secret to really getting fit for the pitch doesn’t lie in any one particular drill, nor does it rely on any effort-free solutions
“The secret to really getting fit for the pitch doesn’t lie in any one particular drill, nor does it rely on any effort-free solutions,” says Adam Butterworth, a former pro footballer who holds a UEFA B coaching badge.
“Truly building your fitness for five-a-side comes down to a few key principles, as well as an understanding of the tactics involved and knowing when to expend your energy. Learn these, know your body and you’ll make it through without ending up on your back in the centre-circle.”
1. Understand your body and your strengths and weaknesses
It’s important to understand your body and your limitations before you go charging around the pitch
“A good game of five-a-side will push your fitness levels up quickly as it requires you to put in the hard work for the good of your team, which over time will increase your stamina and fitness,” says Butterworth. “But it’s important to understand your body and your limitations before you go charging around the pitch. Your muscles, heart and lungs may not be used to such an intense workout, so pick your battles in the early stages and don’t over exert yourself.”
2. Get to know the tactics involved in five-a-side
While five-a-side isn’t as tactical as 11-a-side on a full size pitch, having some understanding of how the two forms of football differ and knowing which area of the pitch is best suited to your size, speed and fitness will get you through the early games when you’re still building up your fitness.
The fastest and strongest player should be at the back
“I find the best formation is two defenders, one midfielder holding the central ground and one forward,” says Butterworth. “But most teams don’t keep to this at all times. Everyone will find themselves in every position at some point.
“The fastest and strongest player should be at the back. There are so many breakaways that a defender often becomes an attacker to support the team, but if you lose possession they need to be capable of covering in defence again. The game can be relentless, so if you’re fitness isn’t quite up there yet, being tactically astute will help massively.”
3. Look after and train the muscles you use most
“The hamstrings are the most important muscles in a footballer’s body, both for speed and power when striking the ball,” says Butterworth. “Players commonly pull up with injuries to the backs of their legs, which is often due to an ineffective warm-up.
“Prepare your body properly with dynamic stretches targeting your calves, thighs and back, and do short sprints building up to your maximum before playing. Five-a-side is mostly played at night so this is especially important on cold winter evenings.”
4. Get your pre and post-match nutrition right
Replenishing your energy stores and repairing muscles is key after a game
Nutrition can be the difference between a solid performance and being sick into a water bucket on the side of the pitch. Eating well before and after a game can provide you with enough energy to get through the entire match and help your muscles to recover afterwards.
“Eating complex (good quality/unrefined) carbohydrates two to three hours before a game is essential for energy,” says Mike Naylor, Southampton FC’s consultant nutrition. “Replenishing your energy stores and repairing muscles is key after a game, so a mix of protein and carbs is what you want, chicken with brown pasta or salmon and scrambled eggs on wholemeal toast is popular with a lot of the players.”
5. Don’t rush yourself back from injury
If it was an injury that curtailed your playing of five-a-side in the first place, be sure you’re not hitting the pitch again prematurely. “If you’ve suffered an injury, just like with the pros it’s important you manage your road to recovery properly,” says Butterworth.
“Always start gently if you’re coming back from injury, five-a-side is an intense sport and your body needs to be robust to be able to handle it. Any previous injuries that haven’t been properly managed are likely to flare up pretty quickly. Rushing yourself back is a false economy.”