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11. 4. 2012.

The female player

Soccer has traditionally been viewed as a game dominated by male participation. Females have had little encouragement to participate in the sport, and have often encountered resistance and open hostility. Indeed the English Football Association banned women from playing football in 1921, and only rescinded this decision as recently as 1971. This is despite the fact that in 1920, over 50,000 spectators watched a game played between two female sides in Liverpool, and large audiences were a regular occurrence at female matches. Scenarios similar to this are common for many other countries, and it is true to say that women’s football still has considerable potential for further development. However, the first female European Championships were held in 1982, and in 1991 in China staged the inaugural female World Cup, which was won by the USA. Many countries now have regional and national leagues for women’s teams, some of which contain a number of professional players. The women’s game is being taken more and more seriously, and as such, has established its own niche in an otherwise male-dominated game.
This chapter attempts to examine some of the physiological demands of the female game, the physiological characteristics of the players, and to establish guidelines on diet, the nature of training, and suggested match strategies for female players.

Match analysis

There is a general lack of data analyzing the pattern and demands of women’s soccer, almost certainly due to the relatively recent growth of the sport. From the data that is available, it would appear that there are remarkably little differences between the men’s and women’s games. B. Ekblom and P. Aninger(unpublished data) studied players of an elite Swedish team, during several games and found that these players on average covered just under 8500m during a game. The females studied by Eklbom and Aninger performed over 100 discrete sprints per game, at an average distance of 14.9(± 5.6) m. Their blood lactate levels were found to be 5.1(± 2.1) mmol/l and 4.6(± 2.1) mmol/l at half- and full-time respectively, whilst mean heart rates of 177(± 11) beats per minute, 174(± 11) beats per minute, and 173(± 10) beats per minute were reported for three separate matches. These values are between 89 and 91% of the squad’s mean peak heart rate, which was 195(± 9) beats per minute. Eklbom(1986) reported that male players achieve heart rates in excess of 85% of their maximum heart rate for approximately two-thirds of a match.
B. Eklbom and P. Aninger(unpublished data) recorded a decrease in the body mass of female players during a 90-min game of 0.9kg, from 62.7(± 6.7) kg pre-match, to 61.8(± 6.6) kg post-match, whilst the amount of fluid consumed was 1.4 l.This would suggest that the actual body weight change was in the region of 2.3kg, most of which is likely to be due to a loss of fluid. Despite the large intake in fluid, the players in this study still finished the match in a state of near hypohydration. These data emphasize the importance of fluid intake before, during, and after matches.

Physiological characteristics

As with the male game, considerable variation in the height and body mass of female players has been reported, a factor which is likely to be a reflection of the varying demands of different playing positions. Indeed, the nature of the game of soccer is such that it does not prevent individuals of different statures competing effectively. This must be one factor behind the worldwide popularity of men’s game, and should therefore enhance the future development of the women’s game.
Studies reporting values of body fat percentages in female soccer are remarkably consistent. At the end of a competitive season, Australian female players were reported to have an average of 20.8(± 4.7) percentage of body fat and a lean body mass of 43.8kg(Colquhuon&Chad 1986). A further study on Australian players by Withers(1987) reported a mean body fat percentage of 22.0(+ 6.8) % and a lean body mass of 47.4kg. In an estimation of body fat percentage using skinfold measurements on the England Womens International squad, Davis and Brewer(1992) reported values of 21.5 and 21.1% before and after a 12-month period of training. Obviously these values are considerably higher than those observed in male players.
Ekblom(1986) reported a strong positive relationship between work-rate and maximum oxygen uptake(VO2max) during a game of male soccer, and it is likely that a similar relationship exists in the women’s game. Hence measurements of maximum oxygen uptake in female soccer players are of interest and importance to the coach, scientist and player. Rhodes and Mosher(1992) directly measured the VO2max of 12 elite Canadian collegiate players, recording a mean value of 47.1 ml x kg-1 x min-1. This is similar to the mean value of 47.9 ml x kg-1 x min-1 found in Australian players, but below the VO2max of 52.2 ml x kg-1 x min-1 measured in English players after a period of concentrated training. These values are less than those reported in elite male players of approximately 60-65 ml x kg-1 x min-1 , which would tend to suggest that females should be unable to cover the same distances as male football players during matches.

Hematological status

The incidence of sports anemia in both males and females is well recognized, and has been reported by Watts(1989). However, in an investigation of a group of 30 female soccer and field hockey players during the course of a competitive collegiate season. Douglas(1989) found that hematological parameters(including hemoglobin, hematocrit and red blood cell count) were all normal at the start of the season, and had increased by the end of the season. Furthermore, Davis and Brewer(1992) found an increase in hemoglobin concentration in a female international football squad after a 12-month period of intensive training. These results would suggest that female football players are generally able to maintain their hematological status whilst training and playing, although it is suggested that regular monitoring will assist in the identification of players who develop abnormal values.

The menstrual cycle

Female soccer players will be as prone to disruptions in performance due to phases of the menstrual cycle as any other female sports competitor. In an investigation of players from the Danish First, Second, and Third divisions, Moller-Neilsen and Hammar(1989) reported a significantly greater risk of traumatic injury during the premenstrual and menstrual phases of the cycle, particularly in those women experiencing premenstrual and menstrual feelings of discomfort. However, those players using the contraceptive pill were found to sustain significantly fewer traumatic injuries than those using other methods of contraception. This tends to imply an hormonal link with the incidence of injury, and is an area requiring further investigation. Disruption of the menstrual cycle and amenorrhea tends to be more common in endurance sports, and in particular those sports were a low body weight is perceived to be advantageous. Coaches of female soccer teams should be advised to undertake a sensitive investigation into the occurrence of this condition within their team, since amenorrheic female athletes are more prone to stress fractures and bone fragility. It is also recommended that coaches should keep records of the menstrual phases of their players, and bear these in mind when prescribing individual training loads.


Correct nutrition is as important for female football players as it is for any other sports competitor. Whilst the total calorific intake may be less than that of male players, dietary regimens should still be based on a high carbohydrate intake(50-65% of total calorific intake) and a low-fat intake(not more than 25% of total calorific intake). Protein intake needn’t be excessive, and should be based on a guideline quota of approximately 1,5g/ kg of body weight per day.
Glycogen is fundamental to playing, to recovery, and as a fuel for training. Whilst female players who start matches with full stores of muscle glycogen may not totally deplete these by the end of the game, players who start matches with less than full muscle glycogen stores are likely to exhaust these(and thus experience extreme fatique) before the end of a game. A high-carbohydrate diet is therefore essential to replace glycogen stores, and this should be consumed on a daily basis, not just on the day before a match. Carbohydrates are also vital immediately after a match in order to replace muscle glycogen stores, and to assist in the process of recovery. Among male soccer players, slow rates of post-exercise muscle glycogen replacement have been linked to poor diet, and good player and coach education is vital if similar circumstances are to be avoided in the female game.

Implications for training

Female soccer players demands on both the aerobic and anaerobic systems, and as such, successful players need to develop in both these areas. In addition, players need to have a high degree of flexibility, agility and strength. Thus female players need to adopt a training regimen that focuses on a number of areas, providing a solid foundation upon which match fitness can ultimately be developed. Unlike the elite male game, where the majority of players are full-time professionals, and,thus, train and play on a part-time basis, often combining their sport with a full-time occupation.
This obviously means that less time can be devoted to training, so the emphasis of the work done should be on quality training specific to the needs of the individual.
Jensen and Larson(1992) suggested that Danish female players generally train on two or three occasions each week, with each session lasting approximately 90 min. Danish international standard players supplement this with between two and four running sessions per week, each lasting for 20-30 min, plus one or two weight training sessions. In the training study reported by Davis and Brewer(1992), players were prescribed three physical training sessions(either running or circuit training) each week, supplementary to their technical soccer training. Nevertheless, the intensity and volume of training undertaken by female soccer players is likely to be varied, and generally higher with players competing at elite level.
It is suggested that the close or off-season period is best spent recovering from the demands of the season, whilst maintaining aerobic fitness and flexibility.
Activities such as tennis, swimming, and cycling should form part of the “active recovery” which is crucial during this phase of the year. The latter stages of the close season and the early part of the pre-season should be spent consolidating aerobic fitness, with the introduction of specific muscular conditioning work in the form of circuit training. More advanced methods of muscular conditioning, such as weight-training and plyomethric work, should only be introduced to females who have completed their physical growth, and who already have a good standard of general conditioning. One are that should not be omitted is the development of knee flexion strength(related to the strength of the hamstring muscle group). This is often neglected area, and imbalances in lower limb strength have been linked to an increased risk of injury in female football players.
If aerobic fitness has been maintained during the close season period, more intensive anaerobic training and speed work should be introduced toward the middle of the pre-season period. However, if this form of more intensive training is started before a solid aerobic foundation to fitness has been developed, it is likely that players will be more susceptible to injury and fatique. Ultimately, match fitness will be developed from competitive games. However, the standard of match fitness which a female player attains is likely to be closely linked to the level of fitness achieved during the close and pre-season conditioning periods.
During the season, matches alone will be unlikely to retain a high standard of basic fitness, and regular supplementary training sessions should be included in the weekly program. The frequency of these sessions will depend on the number of matches being played; if one competitive match is played each week, players should look to supplement this with two or three additional fitness sessions. The nature of the players’ training should be specific to individual needs, and to assess these, regular monitoring of players’ fitness is essential.

Implications for strategy

On the evidence of the available physiological data, it is suggested that female players are more predisposed towards a style of play that entails the patient sequencing of passing, rather than one based on high rates of physical work. Although female players are likely to be able to cope with high rates of work for periods of game, attempts to sustain this for free entire duration of a 90-min match, played on a full-sized pitch, will almost certainly result in high rates of fatique before the end of the game. Coaches of female teams should, perhaps, base their strategies on periods of intermittent high-intensity play, separated by “recovery periods” of containment and passing to retain possession.


Female soccer is a rapidly developing game, and as such the amount of scientific investigation into the sport is limited. There is considerable potential for further research into many aspects of female soccer, and this is needed to provide the coach, player, and scientist with a greater in-depth knowledge of the game. The evidence that does exist suggests that female players have a high standard of physical fitness, which is similar to that found in many other female team sports. Female soccer players sustain high relative exercises during matches, but may be best advised to adopt strategies based on intermittent periods of high-intensity play, interspersed with periods of recovery and containment. The limited time available for training female football players, the majority of whom play on a part-time basis, means that female players’ training programs need to focus on individual requirements. Regular monitoring of fitness is vital, as is the structured planning of the annual training cycle. Essential to the further successful expansion and development of female soccer is good coach and player education in the areas of sports science and sports medicine. 

“Handbook of Sports Medicine and Science - Football(Soccer)”, Björn Ekblom

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