How footballers used to train

5 crazy ways footballers used to keep fit

Words: Matt Lawrence
Photos: Getty Images

Former Millwall and Crystal Palace player Matt Lawrence on the bad, the ugly, and the downright dangerous pre-season training techniques of yesteryear  

More through luck than judgment, I was at the coalface in the mid-1990s.

By ‘the coalface’, I mean the bad old days of pre-season football training. Back then attaching your heart rate monitor to the club dog was not beyond the realms of possibility.

In 1996 it was almost expected that players would come back after their summer break with at least a keg of ale still attached to their stomachs. The first two weeks’ training were just to run that off.

That’s right – normally we didn’t see a ball for well over a fortnight. In fact, sometimes you didn’t see one of those wondrous, spherical objects until your first game of pre-season.

So here are five crazy ways that us footballers used to try and get fit. I’ve also included their equivalent modern techniques to show you how far fitness in football has come.

1. Sweat it out

The technique: Most players came back for pre-season overweight – but only the ‘fat club’ got the privilege of donning a black bin liner with about four jumpers placed over the top to sweat the fat out in the midday July sun.

The principle: Lose weight… and fast.

Why they don’t do it anymore: All this does is dehydrate you. Straight after training, the player would gulp down water to replenish the fluids lost and put the weight back on. It was self-defeating, basically.

What they do now: Players combine 45 minutes power walking on the treadmill with fat burners – legal ones, mind – to lose excess fat. 

How footballers used to train

Matt Lawrence in action for Crystal Palace in 2007

© Getty Images

2. Running on sand dunes

The technique: Exactly what it says on the tin. Many old school managers would load the squad into the minibus and drive them to the nearest beach. Dunes were pounded and, more often than not, it took a couple of people to throw up before proceedings were curtailed.

The principle: Managers believed that it was a good way of burning excess pounds, gaining a decent base level of fitness and cutting the wheat from the chaff in the endurance stakes.

Why they don’t do it anymore: The only real benefit is that it tests the mental strength of your players.

What they do now: These days, managers rarely take the players outside of the confines of the training ground – lucrative, headline-grabbing worldwide pre-season tours aside. Fitness coaches like drills that replicate match day situations. Slogging players up and down sand dunes does not do this – unless you played all your games at Barnet F.C.’s famously sloping, but now defunct, Underhill ground. 

How footballers used to train

3. Army Barracks

The technique: A few times in my career, the whole squad was taken away to spend a week at an army barracks. On one occasion, we stayed in army housing that had been deemed unfit for habitation; I’d like to see them running that one by the Manchester United squad! We would partake in something approaching army life: mess tent, assault course, team-bonding exercises and cross-country slogs. No guns, though…

The principle: Managers loved testing the mentality of the players by playing psychological games; we would rough it while they lived it up in the Officers’ Tent swigging port. Army Barracks sessions did very little for your fitness levels in relation to football, and less than zero in terms of beating your opposition come the first day of the season.

Why they don’t do it anymore: There is zero correlation between a stay in an army barracks and a game of football. The risks are great and the modern day footballer would most likely wither and die (metaphorically, of course) at some of the shenanigans we had to put up with. Their agent would be on speed dial!

What they do now: Actual football training.

4. Hill runs

The technique: As the name suggests, you start at the bottom of a hill and run up to the top. Repeat again and again and again, then do a couple more for luck. At best, this was usually undertaken in a country park. At worst, it was on a steep hill by the side of the road. Suck in the petrol fumes and weep.

The principle: See point (2)

Why they don’t do it anymore: The fitness benefits, in relation to playing football, are minimal. Are you seeing a pattern emerging here?

What they do now: Some clubs have a hill run area built into their training grounds. This isn’t a club-wide phenomenon, and most physiotherapists and fitness coaches will tell you that it’s not good for your stride pattern – and certainly doesn’t help players with back or hamstring problems. 

How footballers used to train

5. Steeplechase

The technique: One particular manager of mine couldn’t get enough of the old-fashioned steeplechase, but his had a twist. We had a 400m track marked out on our training ground, and then had three hurdles placed every 133 yards. After each hurdle, you had to duck under a bamboo cane. A jump and a duck every 133 yards – your back and hamstrings were in tatters by the time you got to the finish line!

The principle: To test endurance. We were told that, “it worked in 1984,” and apparently that was a good enough reason to persevere with it…

Why they don’t do it anymore: No modern day fitness coach or manager could possibly include this drill in their pre-season training regime. The amount of hamstring pulls and back spasms that I witnessed in one pre-season tells the story.

What they do now: Running drills are all football specific – not a jump ‘n’ duck in sight!

Within a relatively short space of time, football pre-seasons have changed dramatically. Pre-season is now a science pored over by multitudes of specialists. Managers pretty much take a back seat where this is involved and focus solely on the football. After all, football matches are won on the pitch – not the running track…

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