In elite soccer, the number of matches per year, including domestic league and cup and international matches is very high. The number increases for the players of the national team. At certain periods, it is common for the teams to compete every 72-96 hours. As a result players may experience fatigue and be at a higher risk for a muscle injury.
Is that true?
There are at least two studies which have examined the role of the number of matches played on performance and injury rate. Dupont and colleagues (2010) from Lille University, France, and Celtic Lab, analyzed the effect of 2 matches per week on physical performance and injury rate in elite soccer players. The authors monitored match-related physical performance and injuries during 2 seasons for 32 professional players. Total distance covered, high-intensity distance, sprints number and distance was not affected by the number of matches per week (1 versus 2). However, the injury rate was about 6-fold higher when players played 2 matches per week.
In another study, Ekstrand and colleagues (2004) grouped the national team players according to the number of matches played during the 10 weeks before the World Cup 2002. The performance of the players during the World Cup was evaluated by a group of 3 international experts. The analysis showed that the players who underperformed played more matches during the 10 weeks before the World Cup than those who performed better than expected. This is of course contradictory to the previous study and underlines the need for more research and critical thinking.
At high level, the 72-96 hours of recovery between 2 matches might be sufficient to maintain physical performance. However, football performance might be negatively affected. To things to remind 1) It is worth noting that the results of both studies mentioned above are with elite players 2) results might have been affected by several factors such as the recovery techniques etc.
- The higher the level of the players and hence their fitness level the greater the chances to play 2 matches every 72-96 hours without a significant decline in their physical performance.
- We don’t know if this holds for lower level players.
- Although physical performance might not be affected it seems that football performance might be lower than expected with high number of games. Again, this was observed during the World Cup which normally is being held at the end of the season and this should be kept in mind before making conclusions.
- The ability to recover fast is crucial especially at the high level. This ability seems to be positively affected by a number of factors, among others:
- high aerobic fitness
- effective recovery techniques which include proper diet, sleep, physical and mental regeneration
It seems that the rate of recovery is affected by many parameters and is a very much an individual issue. Hence, first task is to develop the individual pattern of recovery after the match!
Dupont et al. Effect of 2 soccer matches in a week on physical performance and injury rate. Am J Sports Med 38:1752-1758, 2010.
Ekstrand et al. A congested football calendar and the wellbeing of players: correlation between match exposure of European footballers before the World Cup 2002 and their injuries and performances during that World Cup. Br J Sports Med 38: 493-497, 2004.