Forgetting for a moment the sheer distance covered in a match (about seven miles), what might be most impressive about soccer players are their razor-sharp moves. A pass fake to thread between defenders, stealing the ball from an opponent dribbling down the field, pulling a 180 to scissor-kick the ball mid-air—all require fast feet and reflexes. Also known as agility. So what is it, exactly? “The basis of agility is acceleration,” says Matt Cook, physical performance coach for Major League Soccer’s New York City FC. “Speed up, decelerate, change direction, reaccelerate.”
It’s something that professional soccer players practice about once a week. (Their scrimmages have agility built in.) It’s different from endurance—and, for the rest of us, an overlooked skill but one that is well within reach. Agility workouts require training at 95 to 100 percent of max effort, meaning you’re getting up to an all-out sprint during every run. To ensure that intensity, sessions have short active periods and long rests. And Cook peppers in sport-specific skills like swerves, cuts, and drop-steps, to mimic on-field action. If a player loses speed, he’s gone into endurance mode, and the workout is over. Agility has obvious benefits on the pitch, but it’s a necessity for everyone. Going for a trail run requires agility. So does darting out of the way of an oncoming car. And doing agility work at a high intensity may have brain benefits, too. A University of Copenhagen study suggests that working at 90 percent of your max can improve motor memory consolidation—the brain’s ability to retain new motor skills. But back to the game. It’s no coincidence we’ve got football fever, with the World Cup around the corner. So we headed to NYCFC’s new 17-acre training facility in Orangeburg, New York, to learn how their Russia-bound players train. Grab some cleats, five cones, and a soccer ball—then get ready to run.
THE WARMUP: For 10 to 12 minutes, raise heart rate, and warm up body for explosive movements. Do forward and lateral lunges, air squats, leg circles, and high knees. Add in lower body stretches, plus trunk rotations and shoulder circles.
THE MOVES: Position cones using one of the three patterns indicated below. Sprint the pattern at 90 to 100 percent of your maximum capacity for one rep, then rest 1 minute. Do 3 or 4 reps per set, then rest 2 minutes. Perform 30–40 total reps, and do this workout no more than once or twice per week.