How do you keep non-starting players fit?


We are at the start of the competitive season and are, thus, leaving behind the high physical workloads of the pre-season training period. The focus during the week will shift towards optimally preparing the players for a peak performance in the match, rather than on solely improving their physical capacities. Therefore, there will only be one high-intensity training session during the week, as the other conditional training sessions are replaced by competitive matches. However, since the preparation period is also used to form a starting team, there will also be players who are not exposed to the physically challenging demands of these match every week. Will this have an impact on their physical fitness? And if so, what can we do to minimize this? In this blog we will try to explain the differences between starters and non-starters and find answers to the above described questions.

Matches have been quantified as the most demanding sessions of the week(1). Since non-starting players are not exposed to these match loads weekly, this could lead to differences in physical load between starting and non-starting players. This, in turn, could lead to decrements in physical fitness of the non-starters compared to the starters, making them less prepared for the challenging match demands. Research has shown that accumulated over the whole season there are only small differences between the total distance covered of starters (started in >60% of the matches), fringe players (started in 30-60% of the matches) and non-starters (started in <30% of the matches) in the English Premier League (see figure 1)(2). It should be noted that fringe players, and non-starters covered more distance in training than starters. This difference can be explained by the recovery training for starters the day after the match, whereas non-starters follow an adjusted training program. Therefore, this adjusted program seems effective in limiting the differences in the volume of match load for starters and non-starters.

Figure 1: Overview of the seasonal load of starters, fringe players and non-starters across a Premier League season (total of 43 matches)

But what are the differences in the higher running speed zones? We know that high-intensity activity is responsible for improving the endurance capacity of the players. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that non-starters are exposed to the same amount of load as the starting players on this aspect. However, research shows that there are substantial differences in sprinting distance (>20 km/h) between starters, fringe players and non-starters (see figure 1)(2). Match load alone seems to be responsible for this difference, as there are almost no differences in sprinting during training (see figure 1). Therefore, the adjusted training program for non-starters is not effective in exposing the players to the high-intensity match load. The underloading of non-starters on this aspect, could lead to reductions in physical fitness. Indeed, it has been shown that there were relative performance decrements in non-starters compared with starters in male collegiate soccer across the season(3).

Now that we have seen that the weekly load of non-starters is insufficient to prepare them for the match demands, we need to know how we can overcome this problem. An adjusted training program for the non-starters the first two days after a match is the first step in bridging this gap. The volume of these training sessions does not appear to be the problem. However, we have also seen that the large difference in sprinting is solely caused by the match. This means that the adjusted training program for non-starters should expose them to comparable amounts of sprinting as during the match. There are two ways to increase the amount of sprinting in the training session: sprint exercises and/or position games. For sprint exercises, it is important to include position-specific sprints (determine the position-specific sprints for your team with the use of the tactical module (heatmaps) in Labs). For a fullback this might result in 4x40m sprint and 10x15m sprints. In addition to sprint exercises, you can add position games which expose the players to sprinting activity. These are usually the position games with larger number of players (8v8 or 11v11). However, since  the training for non-starters mostly consists of limited number of players, you can increase the sprinting activity for position games with smaller number of players (3v3 or 5v5) by playing them on relatively larger field dimensions (see Table 1 for guidelines).

Table 1: Guidelines for positioning games to expose players to sprint activity


Now that pre-season is almost over, differences in match load will arise between starters and non-starters. The days after the match, when the starters follow a recovery program, are used to expose the non-starters to higher physical loads. Even though this program is effective in limiting the difference in total distances covered (volume of training), it does not seem effective in limiting the difference in high-intensity actions (sprinting). It is, therefore, advised to include position-specific sprints and positions games with relatively large field dimensions in this adjusted training program for non-starters. This way, the non-starters will be exposed to the same high-intensity load as the starters and this will limit their performance decrements across the season.


  1. Los Acros, A., Mendez-Villanueva, A. & Martinez-Santos, R. (2017). In-season training periodization of professional soccer players. Biol. Sport., 34: 149-155.
  2. Anderson, L., Orme, P., Di Michele, R., Close, G., Milsom, J., Morgans, R., Drust, B. & Morton, J. (2016). Quantification of seasonal-long physical load in soccer players with different starting status from the English premier league: implications for maintaining squad physical fitness. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 11: 1038-1046.
  3. Kraemer, W., French, D., Paxton, N., Häkkinen, K., Volek, J., Sebastianelli, W., Putukian, M., Newton, R., Rubin, M., Gómez, A., Vescovi, J., Ratamess, N., Fleck, S., Lynch, M. & Knuttneg, H. (2004) Changes in exercise performance and hormonal concentrations over a big ten soccer season in starters and nonstarters. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 18(1): 121-128

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