A guide to S&C for female footballers

In recent years, women's football has experienced tremendous growth and popularity worldwide. As the Women's side of the game continues to evolve in popularity and interest compared to the Men's game, so is the physical side of the game. The WSL and international women's football is the most physical it has been with more investment into strength and conditioning and sports science departments, players are faster, stronger and more powerful than previous years. However, the main mistake coaches/practitioners make is training female footballers the same way they would male footballers. Females are physiologically different from males and need to be treated as such. This shows the need for specialised training programs tailored to the unique physiological requirements of female footballers. This article aims to provide a comprehensive guide to strength and conditioning training specifically designed for female footballers.

How are female athletes differ from the male athletes

The main physiological differences between females and males can be seen with the differences in maturation. Peak height velocity (PHV) is known as the period in maturation where an individual experiences an accelerated level of growth. Females typically experience this earlier than males around 11-13 years old, whereas males typically experience this around 13-15 years old. Aside from females experiencing PHV earlier than males there are some key hormonal differences that may be disadvantageous to females compared to males in relation to athletic development. When males go through puberty they have increased levels of testosterone which facilitates  growth and  increased muscle mass which leads to greater strength gains which is a key factor in performance, speed, power and change of direction and injury prevention which equals better performance on the field.

In contrast females experience an increase in female specific hormones such as oestrogen. This leads to increased body fat which is disadvantageous for athletic performance and is also associated with widening of the hips and onset of menstrual cycle. As you can see the female body is different from males and has different experiences through maturation that affect athletic performance and as such the training strategies should be different too. Research shows how males increase in relative strength, speed and power during and post maturation evidenced by higher jump heights and landing forces. In contrast women experience a decrease in relative strength, and ability to produce force quickly which is important for sprinting, jumping and change of direction which is partly due to the factors of maturation such as increased body fat, and changes of movement patterns with a rapidly changing body.

ACL injuries in female footballers

Due to this decrease in relative strength and changes in hormonal profile throughout the menstrual cycle which influence joint laxity, female athletes have an increased risk of injury in particular knee and ACL injuries through changes in movement patterns and landing mechanics. This is a big problem in the women's game with upward of 25 players around the top leagues tearing their ACL in the last 12 months, 4 in Arsenal's first team alone. An ACL tear sometimes happens due to a greater reliance on the knee extensors relative to the hip extensors which places greater load on the knee joint and ACL. This is also evident in pre-pubertal girls but is magnified through maturation. This would suggest that as females go through and post PHV the aim should be to develop relative strength, reactive strength and neuromuscular control.

The effect of the menstrual cycle on female football performance

Another topic that is highly debated and has been briefly mentioned already is the menstrual cycle and the effect it has on performance. The typical menstrual cycle lasts 28 days and can be split up into 4 phases: menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation and the luteal phase. The two main phases are the follicular phase (first 2 weeks) and luteal phase (last 2 weeks). During the follicular phase females have a lower level of hormones during the first phase of your menstrual cycle, it is believed this is when your body is primed to maximise hard training efforts. This means your body is better able to access stored carbohydrates, making this an ideal time for high-intensity training. It’s also easier to build and maintain muscle, which means this is also a great time to emphasise muscle-building exercises. During the luteal phase your body is preparing for your next period. This means your hormones are running at a higher level, due to an increase in oestrogen and progesterone. More hormones means a decrease in anabolic, or muscle-building, capacity. It is suggested that it’s time to take it easier, and decrease volume or intensity.

Some coaches take a phase based training approach with female athletes where they split their months training programme into two, two weeks cycles to reflect the menstrual cycle. I personally don’t believe in that style of programming as in my experience of training female athletes, the menstrual cycle is highly individual and affects every woman differently. Some women may experience little to no symptoms so I wouldn’t recommend dropping intensity or volume of programme for half the month if they feel fit and ready. Whereas you have other athletes who experience very aggressive symptoms where I would absolutely alter their programme and lower intensity or volume or both. It’s important to understand your menstrual cycle and how it affects your body and be honest with your coach if possible or if you don’t have a coach to yourself to alter training even though you may feel you don’t want to or that you will fall behind.

Key components of S&C training for female footballers

Resistance training

Strength underpins speed, power and injury prevention. As mentioned previously, as women go through maturation we see decreases in relative strength, making it more important to develop strength as we go through and post PHV. I like to take a holistic approach with female athletes to strength training to improve relative strength. You want to expose yourself to a range of different movement patterns, in different planes of motion, and at different speeds. I would prioritise lower limb strength to upper body strength targeting main muscle groups such as glutes, hamstrings, quads, groins and calves. Get strong at key compound movements such as squats and hinges as well as unilateral strength in split squats and lunges. Exercise selection, volume and intensity will be dictated by maturation, training experience, the menstrual cycle and injury. Athletes pre PHV should focus purely on movement skills in a fun and enjoyable environment with loads of reps at bodyweight or very light load. As you mature and go through and post PHV you can start to load up movements and increase intensity as long as movement and technique is perfect.

Plyometric training

Plyometric training helps us to effectively control and move our bodies in different directions and produce force explosively. As females go through PHV and their bodies are changing rapidly it is important that they are able to control and move their bodies in different directions effectively. As female footballers also seem to be more likely to pick up ACL injuries than males I would have a big emphasis on landing mechanics and deceleration in horizontal and lateral planes to help strengthen knees,  improve trunk and hip stability and improve movement quality to prevent injury. Start basic with double leg tall-short landings on the ground, progressing to split stance and single leg. Focus on absorbing force, good body and knee position and hip and trunk stability. Once confident at this you can start altitude landings, again starting off a small box double leg and progressing height of box and double to single leg. As women also see decreases in their ability to produce force quickly as they mature I would also start to bleed in some extensive plyos such as pogos and hops to develop producing force quickly, with quick contact times and trying to get as high as we can every rep. I would then advise progressing onto more intensive drop jumps, hurdle jumps etc. Quality over quantity with all plyometric work is key and plenty of rest is needed between sets and max effort particularly with jumps.

Mobility

Mobility is important to be able to achieve good movement quality, and range of motion which will ultimately lead to greater performance in the gym and on the field and reduce risk of injury. Again focusing on the lower body will be key unless you play as goalkeeper then you will need to also do upper body. My recommendations on main areas of interest for concern are hips, hamstrings, groins, quads, and ankles. This can be done through a mix of foam rolling, dynamic stretching, and working through full ranges of motion under load in our strength work.

Speed & agility training

When training speed and agility with female athletes I think the most important factor is solid mechanics. A lot of ACL injuries picked up by women football players are non-contact related and are from knees being overloaded, you don't absorb force you produce it which is partly due to poor mechanics and not being able to get the body in the correct positions. Based on this I would have a big emphasis on first being able to get into the right positions for acceleration, deceleration, sprinting and change of direction and then slowly progressing intensity into more dynamic efforts and finally into sport-specific scenarios. Again similarly to plyometrics quality over quantity is key and this can be very taxing on the body so low reps and sets with plenty of rest inbetween would be advised.

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