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The dread of pre-season training looms large

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Gavin Strachan | 10:37 UK time, Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Hi, hope you are all well.

It might be June, but having reflected on the season that has just passed, the thoughts of professional footballers are now - grudgingly - switching to getting themselves prepared for pre-season training. For most players, those words "pre-season training" are tantamount to an obscenity.

The window of opportunity for abusing your body (in moderation of course!) in terms of the food you eat and in some cases what you drink is becoming smaller each year. The need to maintain your fitness over the close-season is now a necessity as opposed to an option, which some could argue was the case in years gone by.

When I first entered the world of full-time football as a 16-year-old YTS player at Coventry, attitudes in relation to how players look after themselves in the close-season were starting to change.

Disciplined close-season fitness programmes, which are now accepted as the norm at every Football League club, were starting to be introduced primarily at the top level. Such fitness programmes, including those concerning diet, usually follow a similar path. Rest completely for two weeks after the end of the season and then gradually build the workload up so that you are close to peak condition when you return to training.

For present-day professional footballers there is now the added worry of the body-fat testing procedure waiting for you when you report back for pre-season training. The programme that the Notts County players were given had a body-fat percentage target specifically tailored for each player and coming back with a higher one was not to be recommended. If they did exceed this percentage, they were placed in what is known as the "Fat Club", which basically meant that they were subjected to extra training to get back down to their target percentage.

Footballers are put through their paces

It is the same at a lot of clubs. Indeed, the whole concept of the body-fat testing that is organised at clubs is something that has become more prevalent as I have grown older. Most clubs will carry out the test on a monthly basis and pin up the results on the dressing-room wall, as a kind of a public humiliation!

I personally feel that it has been a great help to me in how I look after my own body. It was after one such body-fat testing session (which had not been administered at my previous club) shortly after I moved to Peterborough that I was shamed into becoming somewhat of a fitness fanatic. I won't say exactly what my body-fat percentage was but suffice to say it was enough to warrant a lifestyle change!.

Personally, my fitness programme for next season is already well under way.

There is no greater motivation for getting up and going on those runs than the need to find a new club and hit the ground running when you eventually get one. Coupled with this is the fact that I have hit my thirties and am intent on proving to the younger players that I am fitter than them. Maybe it could be argued that I am going a bit over the top in that respect, but if it helps me get a club then it will be well worth it.

From a purely selfish point of view, going on these runs also gives me an excuse to get out of the house for a bit. I usually try and coincide the times of my runs with the kids getting ready for school - always a stressful time in our house and good to avoid!.

The main reason clubs now expect their players to come back with an extremely high level of fitness is that it gives them more scope to devote their pre-season training time to honing a team system for the season ahead and working on the technical side of things. This is illustrated by the fact that a lot of clubs now go straight into a degree of ballwork on the first day of pre-season training, or if not on the first day then certainly in the first week. In days gone by the unwritten rule was that you would not even set eyes on a football until the second or third week of your pre-season work..

There is also a greater emphasis on sports science now. For most clubs, the pre-season schedule is now overseen by specialist fitness coaches. When I first started, such figures were few and far between in the industry. Whereas heart-rate monitors are used now to chart every individual's performance levels in running sessions, the main yardstick before was which players were the first to throw up!

Regardless of how many pre-season schedules you have endured one thing never changes - the horrible nervous feeling in the pit of your stomach before the first run. I am sure 99% of players will relate to this. I have not come up with one definitive reason why this is but I think it is a combination of not knowing how fit you are in relation to the other players and also the thought of what awaits you in the coming weeks of pre-season.

My hardest ever pre-season came during my time at Coventry - under my old man - when we went on a tour to St Andrews in Scotland. When we initially found out the location we were quite pleased as we thought a couple of games of golf might be on the agenda. Needless to say we were hopelessly mistaken. Although this took place nearly 10 years ago I can still vividly remember the aching in my thighs as I tried to scramble up yet another sand dune only to see Roland Nillson, who was around 30, storm off into the distance putting us young pups to shame!

Each day, we were split into teams and the team with the worst combined score for the running had to do a forfeit. One forfeit was a run at 7.00 in the morning and then take a dip in the North Sea! When I say dip, the physiotherapist, Stuart Collie was used as a marker, approximately 50 metres out to sea and every member of the losing team had to go round him and back to shore.

Needless to say Mr Collie was not too impressed with the stragglers at the back! Fair play to you Stu!

Some of my previous blogs have encouraged debate on youth football and its positives and negatives. One comment from a reader of the blog has always stuck in my mind. It was along the lines of: "We can all talk about it but nothing will ever get done".

The situation I have found myself in following my release from Notts County and the difficulty in trying to secure a new club has given me the motivation to do something about that by trying to set up my own soccer school.

The idea behind it will be simple - to provide a platform for kids to fall in love with the game and keep them loving it. The disappointment some of these kids have to face at an early age through experiences such as being released from academies at the age of nine and playing under intense pressure from parents is more than enough to make kids become disillusioned with the sport.

My priority, though, is to find a new club and play for as long as I can.

Finally I would like to send my condolences to the family of Dumbarton captain Gordon Lennon who died at the weekend.


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