(MCT) -- It's 7 a.m. on a Monday in July, and 18-year-old Rachel Holden is already out on the field. Soccer season doesn't start until the end of August, but she and her teammates on the women's soccer team at the University of North Texas are already training. They want to be in top shape when the season begins.
That's when they'll be playing two 90-minute games a week - and running, walking and jogging close to 7 miles per game.
So it makes sense when David Trevino, assistant director of strength and conditioning at UNT, says, "Endurance is extremely important."
So are speed, balance and strength.
That's why during the off-season, fitness takes precedence. Trevino's players work out between an hour and a half to two hours five days a week, focusing on these core elements of physical fitness.
The just-completed World Cup has put soccer and the stamina required to play in the spotlight as never before in America. Nobody who watched any of the tournament will be surprised to learn that playing the game requires an intense fitness regimen.
While the routines vary depending on the level of soccer - high school, club, college, pro - most players practice between an hour and a half to two hours five to six days a week, says Jason Hirsch, head men's soccer coach at the University of Texas at Dallas.
During the week to two weeks before the season begins, the teams often have two-a-days, where they practice for two hours in the morning and two more hours in the evening.
Hirsch says a player's No. 1 goal during these periods is to build endurance, so he usually starts his practices with some running exercises.
"Soccer is a game of stopping, starting, sprinting, walking, jogging," he says. "It's all mixed in. Change of speed. Change of directions. You have to work on all that stuff."
He'll often have his players run two approximately 400-yard laps around the field, take a 10-second break, run a sprint shuttle (quick runs up and down the field), take a break, then run another lap, break, sprint shuttle, break, two more laps, break, lap, break. And while they're at it, he times them, pushing them toward an eight-minute mile.
"Guys have to be in shape to be able to do that," he says.
Runs like these can last around 45 minutes. This builds endurance, but it also works on agility and speed.
When Hirsch really wants to build up his players' speed, he'll pull out the speed ladder, a rope ladder around 10 meters long that is laid flat on the grass. The players then step in and out of the rungs as fast as they can, before sprinting back to do it all over again. They'll do that for about 20 minutes, Hirsch says.
The speed ladder also develops good balance, as do hurdles, which force the players' knees up when they run.
Besides fieldwork, Hirsch says his players go to the weight room at least three times a week to maintain their strength.
The most important muscles to strengthen: the core.
"In soccer, in order to put somebody off balance and take the ball from them, you have to use your core strength," Hirsch says.
Steve Parker, trainer for the Dallas Sidekicks, a professional soccer team based in a Dallas suburb, agrees.
"When you plant your foot and you don't have core strength, you don't know where the ball will go," he says.
Like Hirsch, Parker makes his team perform abdominal exercises three days a week. These include sit-ups; leg throws, where lying on the ground they raise their legs and a teammate throws them back to the ground; and a sit-up/header combination, in which the player heads a ball at the top of each sit-up.
"They do that until they're tired," says Parker with a laugh, adding that's usually between 30 and 40 minutes.
Holden, at University of North Texas, says she goes to the weight room for about 30 minutes every day, working her abdomen as well as her lower body through squats and dead-lifts.
When it comes to really developing strength and balance, Hirsch says there's nothing like getting out on the field and playing some ball.
That's why when the season begins, practices turn from pure fitness to more exercises involving the ball.
"We play a game where there's flags way off the field," he says. "You give each player on the field a number ... When you call out their number, those players have to quickly run around the closest flag possible and then join back into the game as quickly as possible. You're playing a game and you're doing fitness."
Parker says he'll simulate the game through running drills, formations and free kicks, and often just a good old-fashioned scrimmage.
The physical training is rigorous, but Holden says mental strength is the real key to success.
"You can have all the physical body strength, but if you aren't mentally strong, you can give up so easily," she says. "It's during running that you develop mental strength. When you can't go on any more but still push yourself."
Hirsch says most soccer players develop that mental and physical strength because they want to stay in the game.
"If you're a soccer player and you're not training to play 90 minutes, then you're probably not going to play 90 minutes," he says. "And nobody wants to come off the field. I mean, who wants to come off? Everybody wants to play. So as a soccer player, your goal is to get as fit as possible so that the coach can say, 'He's playing well. He's fit enough. He can stay in the game.'"
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