Five fitness drills to help you become a better Sunday league footballer

Five fitness drills to help you become a better Sunday league footballer

Ahh, Sunday morning football. Truly a Great British institution.

It's the addictive, beer-stained antidote to the sterility and shaven legs of the modern game – bare bones football, stripped down to its grubby Y-fronts and mismatched socks.

If you're one of the tens of thousands who haul themselves out of bed on a Sunday to do battle on sticky quagmires in unwashed kit, it might just be the highlight of your week.

So with all of that in mind, we've teamed up with Energy for Life Fitness in Brighton to give your game a boost. Head coach Tom Powell (himself a former pub league stalwart) has come up with a fitness plan that will improve your performance and spare you from having to hobble around like a pensioner for days after the final whistle has blown.

1. Backwards running (aka Retro-running)


Running backwards is a great way to strengthen the back of your legs (calves, hamstrings, glutes to name a few). For most of us we spend the majority of our running going forwards which strengthens our quads on the front of our thighs. So by adding some backwards running drills into your training, you will create more balance between the muscles on the back vs the muscles on the front of your legs, and this will reduce the risk of injuries and boost performance.

There is also a knack to running backwards, it's a skill that requires different motor control to running forwards. The better you are at it and the faster you can do it without falling over, the more confident you will be at it during a football match when you are trying to mark a player and keep your eyes on the ball further up the pitch.


I recommend starting slowly with backwards running by building in some backwards walking into your warm up before a training session, workout or match. If you think you look weird doing it, then combine it into a short shuttle run from the goal line to the edge of the 18 yard box, so you run forwards, then walk backwards to the goal line and repeat 10 times. As you get comfortable with a fast backwards walk, increase it to backwards jog, then to a backwards run.

Core Benefits of Backwards Running

  • Improved Posture
  • Improved Oxygenation
  • Better coordination
  • Boosted Performance

2. Multi-directional lunges


Multi-directional lunges are one of the most effective lower-body conditioning movements. Covering multiple angles helps you be more agile and coordinated. It also protects you from common injuries on the football field such as groin injuries. Football is a fast-paced sport with a lot of sudden direction changes and lunging of one leg out at funny angles to control the ball or make that vital challenge. Thus, preparing your body and nervous system is very important.


The easiest way to set yourself up is to imagine you are standing on a giant clock face, so 12 o’clock is in front of you, 6pm behind you, 3pm to your right hand side and 9pm to your left hand side. Begin with a forward lunge on your right leg to 12 o’clock, then step back to the centre of the clock face. Then continue lunging on your right leg, going clockwise around the clock aiming for a 45 degree lunge to 1:30, side lunge to 3, and reverse lunge to 6. At the 6 o’clock point, swap to lunging with your left leg, so reverse lunge to 6, side lunge to 9, 45 degree lunge to 10:30 and forward lunge to 12 o’clock. That’s 1 full lap going clockwise. Pause there and reverse all the lunges going in an anti-clockwise direction.

The lunge movement

Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Step out with your left or right foot aiming for the desired time on the clock face and bend both knees; lower yourself until your knees are bent at a 90-degree angle. It's essential to watch out for any knee movement. You don't want your knees to cave in. Keep you front knee stacked over your toes. Step back to standing at the starting position and repeat, aiming for the next time on the clock face.

Tom also recommends practicing with a wooden stick on your back for better control of movement and coordination. You can also layout cones as targets around you to lunge at.

Benefits of multi-directional lunges

  • Multi-directional lunges strengthen the knee, hip, and ankle joints as well as all the stabiliser muscles involved in lateral movements.
  • Decrease the risk of muscular imbalances and injuries 
  • Boost performance in every other physical activity through the reinforced supportive muscles.
  • Help develop lower body muscles
  • Boost mobility and balance
  • Increases the core stability

3. Hanging Knee Tucks


Hanging knee tucks are fantastic to improve core stability using your abdominal muscles and your obliques, while also working your lats and arms. The secret ingredient to them though is that they strengthen your hip flexors, which are often overlooked in strength training, despite being some important to sprinting, kicking and tackling.


Begin by hanging from a pull-up bar, keeping the body straight using an overhand grip. Slowly raise your knees towards your chest. Compress your thighs up into your chest as tight as you can on each rep. Lower the legs slowly, getting back to the starting position. Try to do at least ten repetitions. Do not swing your legs; control the descent and keep your core engaged.

Benefits of Hanging Knee Tucks

  • Great isolation exercise for core and hip flexors
  • Helps to develop a solid core.
  • Improves your grip
  • Helps you develop stronger arms

4. Single-Leg Deadlifts


Whilst squats and regular deadlifts (standing on 2 feet) are great, so much of football is played balancing on one leg, so Tom prefers to get players good at and super-strong using Single leg deadlifts. They require more balance, coordination and more closely mimic the action of smashing the ball in the top corner!


Step 1: Start by standing with the feet hip-length/width apart and parallel. If you are using a barbell, use an overhand grip. (You can also use a dumbbell, kettlebells or stand on a resistance band)

Step 2: Slowly lift one leg up behind you and at the same time lean forward from the hips, keeping a straight back. Imagine a solid line from your back heel to the top of your head as you tilt forwards until your body forms a 'T' shape from the side.

Step 3: Let your arms hang down straight while holding onto the weight, but keep your shoulders activated. Maintain a slight bend in the standing leg, slowly bringing in your extended back leg and return to starting position. Repeat the process for 4-8 reps on one leg, then swap to your other leg.

Benefits of Single Leg Deadlifts

  • Strengthens the posterior chain: glutes, lower back, hamstrings
  • Improve your balance and movement skills.

5. Low-intensity Aerobic Cardio


Low-intensity cardio increases your aerobic capacity or the body's function to utilise oxygen. This way, your body can break down carbohydrates and fats for fuel, reinforce the slow-twitch muscles, and carry oxygen more efficiently thus increasing endurance which leads to better performance over the 90 mins (or even extra time reducing the chances of cramps in the cup final).

Before we jump into the how it's important to cover how to get a baseline of what your LISS (Low intensity steady state) should be because it’ll be different for everybody. One of the best ways to get your baselines right is to do a “talk test”. Talk test simply measures your ability to talk whilst exercising.

Because talk is very reliant on breath as soon as you lose your ability to talk continuously whilst exercising, it means you’re moving to a higher intensity zone. Another great indication that your training at the right level to get the benefits of LISS cardio is to use nasal breathing.

This means that you keep your mouth closed and only breathe in and out through your nose whilst exercising. If you can’t continue without opening your mouth to get more air, it's a sign you need to slow down and reduce the intensity you are working at.


As mentioned above, everybody has a different VO2 max, hence “the how” will greatly depend on where you’re currently at in terms of your fitness level. Try some steady paced light cardio outdoors or on any of the machines below using the talk test to get a baseline first. As you become fitter your baseline level will increase over time.


If you are a fan of outdoors exercise, you can try:

  • Hiking
  • Jogging
  • Cycling
  • Swimming

At the gym

  • Treadmill
  • Exercise bike
  • Rowing machine
  • Ski Erg
  • Cross trainer

Benefits of Low-Intensity Aerobic Cardio

  • Builds a base level of endurance to keep you at your best throughout the whole match
  • It helps strengthen the lungs, heart, bones, and muscles
  • It aids in calming the nervous system
  • Provides an endorphin rush to boost your overall mood
  • Decreases stiffness, injury, or pain through the low impact movement
  • Aid in managing health concerns such as high blood pressure, heart diseases, and diabetes.
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