How fit are footballers compared to other athletes?

Ryan Giggs. Photo by: Paul

Ryan Giggs. Photo by: Paul

Tomorrow I’m running a 10k race here in KL. It got me thinking about fitness (sadly it hasn’t got me quite as fit as I would have liked to be for it) and in particular, how fit are footballers compared to other athletes?

There’s no doubt that the modern game puts a huge emphasis on fitness, it’s quicker and more physical than ever before. Sports science is now thoroughly embedded at all the top clubs and players have access to an array of specialists from dieticians to psychologists. Most also have personalised training and fitness plans.

Footballers often complain of the demands made of them, the need to play three games in a week quite regularly for instance. In the 2013/2014 season Christiano Ronaldo played 49 games for club and country including the World Cup, where he looked rather lethargic as part of a poor Portuguese side. Messi played 46 games including the World Cup and looked absolutely exhausted by the end of it. He did have to carry the Argentina side on his back for a lot of it though.

Those statistics cover a period of about nine months. Compare that with Andy Murray’s rather manic effort to qualify for the end of season tour finals recently. In a six week period between the end of the US Open and the start of the finals in London, Murray played 23 matches and won three titles. That averages out at a match every 1.8 days. Still feeling tired footballers?

The average tennis match at Murray’s level is at least 90 minutes long and often longer. Of course he’s also out there on his own, without ten teammates to help him. Find a video of him training, especially his winter sessions in Miami, and admire the intensity.

So there’s a case to argue that the top tennis players are fitter athletes than footballers. How about some other sports? Well we can probably rule out golf. And darts. And snooker.

Rugby is an interesting one. The intensity of international test matches for example is just amazing. The action is non-stop and it seems as though all 15 players are involved more constantly than all 11 on a football pitch. I think the physical demands of particular positions vary more widely in rugby but nevertheless these guys are seriously fit.

A couple of other sports that spring to mind are boxing and gymnastics. Boxing is probably the ultimate test of physical and mental stamina. Perhaps the hardest training I ever did was a boxing circuit class which I used to go to six or seven years ago (I avoided any prospect of actually being punched in the face).

To get a rough idea of how tough boxing is, try throwing punches in the air for a few minutes. Then imagine doing that for 12 or 15 rounds but actually hitting flesh rather than air. Remember too that the person you’re hitting is intent on knocking you out. I think boxers would find life as a footballer pretty easy by comparison.

I was woeful at gymnastics at school. My assessed floor routine consisted of forward rolls, inelegant backwards rolls and my preferred move, the sausage roll. Gymnasts combine so many elements of fitness though: strength, flexibility, agility, speed, and explosive power. Many footballers have adopted more gymnastic-style or yoga training routines, often in a bid to prolong their careers. Ryan Giggs is an excellent example.

Then there’s everyone from sprinters to marathon runners, rowers and cyclists. They tend to be quite fit. This sort of comparison across sports is not an easy one to make and is a bit like comparing different eras in football.

That said, I don’t think too many footballers have reached the limits of their athletic ability. It will be interesting to watch the athletic development of the game over the next decade or so. How much quicker will it get? How much stronger might players be expected to be? When will they stop complaining about playing three times a week?

Maybe I’ll be a little more sympathetic after tomorrow’s race.