News Live Scores
Primera División

Behind the scenes in LaLiga: How Valencia, Mallorca, Granada and Osasuna keep their players in top shape

13:02 GMT+4 13/02/2020
Valencia CF Cristiano Piccini
The Spanish clubs have equipped themselves with cutting-edge methodologies to enhance their fitness training

Is it possible to mould the physically perfect footballer? We're talking about the kind of athlete that's able to get up and down the pitch for 90 minutes for 60 matches a season, whilst, needless to say, never missing a game through injury.

The more you run, the fitter you are. This was the mantra of the rather rudimentary fitness regimes back in the day when Real Madrid's La Quinta del Buitre and Barcelona star Diego Maradona battled it out for LaLiga glory. There really wasn't anything to it.

Those days aren't all that long ago, but in terms of fitness training it's as if we're harking back to a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth, with the game having advanced light years since then. Today your average training ground could easily be mistaken for a science lab, brimming with state-of-the-art technology the product of proven research and painstaking experimentation.

It's all about optimising player performance and leaving absolutely no stone unturned. GPS technology, big data, neuropriming, nutrition, vibration systems, isoinertial technology, sleep studies, hydrotherapy, zero-gravity equipment and psychology are just a handful of the fields that are now very much part and parcel of the modern game. These concepts and systems are central to the working life of your modern-day fitness coach, who is tasked with educating themselves to become an expert in a whole range of different disciplines related to a player's general well-being.

"The job title of fitness coach is just one of the many hats we wear", says Granada fitness coach, Victor Lafuente. "At the end of the day, we're responsible for optimising player performance. People seem to think that our job is just to make the players run further, jump higher and keep going for longer.

"But there's far more to it than that: sleep, ergogenic aids, the various interpersonal relationships with the player, etc. Our role isn’t limited to just planning strength exercises."

A fitness coach working in football in the modern age has to consider the possibilities offered by technology, laying on individual training drills, adapting to a footballing blueprint, spending more time on the training pitch than in the gym, injury prevention and the overall influence of a range of medical and biological disciplines. Fitness training is no longer just a case of running for the sake of running and seeing how fast we can get heartbeats pumping.

Javier Minano, whose three decades of experience make him one of the most skilled fitness coaches in the Spanish game, is now back in LaLiga with Valencia and is in no doubt that the future is all about technology and the use of big data.

"We have to look to something more scientific in terms of investigation in order to simplify the data. The key to the future is also all about individual training and tailoring the workloads to individual players to a greater extent," he stressed.

To return to our question, is it actually possible to mould the physically perfect footballer in the short to medium term? LaLiga clubs certainly think so and they're definitely going the right way about it.

A number of LaLiga clubs have welcomed us in to offer us an insight into their efforts to mould that perfect footballer, as they reveal the secrets behind the fitness training of some of the greatest footballers on the planet.

Granada

Victor Lafuente was appointed as the fitness coach at Granada in the 2018-19 season as a member of Diego Martinez's coaching staff and proved instrumental in the club's promotion last time round. Granada has the third lowest salary limit in LaLiga and are still in a restructuring process initiated by the arrival of Chinese owner Jian Lizhang in 2016. They’re doing things the right way, though. Well, amongst other feats, the Andalusian outfit promoted partially because they registered the best injury record in the professional ranks of the Spanish game last term, picking up just five muscular injuries throughout the whole campaign. This record is partly down to the revolutionary local muscle vibration treatment, which was introduced into the club's fitness regime by Lafuente, a pioneer and visionary fitness expert within the European game.

"It all started back in 2016," recalls Lafuente. "I was looking for a muscle activation training course and came across Neuromecanica LAB, who looked at things from a neurological approach. My dad had Alzheimer's and that was what initially prompted me to look at how the brain works. Another reason behind it was my interest in finding out why many players suffer injury relapses. And I discovered that injuries not only affect the body on a musculoskeletal level but that they also impact on neurological mechanisms. Whilst you might recover physically from an injury, there are still neurological changes which can end up causing a recurrence of that injury.

"We tend to think it's a case of just improving your strength, but really everything goes through a primary process where the brain dictates and organises things," tells Lafuente. "Any kind of neurodegenerative illness ultimately means that, even when your muscles can be healthy, if your brain doesn't coordinate the signals received that it has to send to the muscles, then the muscles aren’t activated as the context demands. An injury causes a neurological change because there's an interruption to the process that carries the signal to the sensor and motor cortex and on to the muscle. This whole circuit is affected."

Local muscle vibration, which is achieved using various different devices, works a particular muscle, helping to reorganise and reconnect the neurological circuits. It's not enough for the muscle to be healthy; the brain also has to be aware that it's healthy. The team's injury record from last season speaks volumes of the therapy’s effectiveness. Indeed, the system is beginning to take root across Spanish and European football, both to assist injury recovery and activation prior to training sessions and matches. At Granada, where everything is done with meticulous detail, the technique is used on a daily basis.

Mallorca

Mallorca are the exception to the rule in the world of football. Just two seasons ago, the Islanders were competing in the Spanish third tier and now they're mixing it with the country's big boys in LaLiga Santander, even managing to get the better of powerhouses such as Real Madrid and Valencia.

One man who has had a big hand in the club's meteoritic rise, which involved back-to-back promotions, is former Sevilla and Zenit St Petersburg fitness coach, Dani Pastor, who boasts 20 years of experience in the field. The enthusiastic Pastor is in his element as a member of Vicente Moreno's backroom staff and feels very much at home at Mallorca, a club that's strongly committed to enhancing its players' performance levels and well-being.

The influence and vast experience of the club's board of directors, which features Robert Sarver, the majority shareholder at the NBA's Phoenix Suns since 2004, and Steve Nash, a living NBA legend, is plain for all to see. As Mallorca rose up through the leagues, the club's facilities improved to the current enviable levels of professionalism boasted by the Son Moix outfit.

Amongst all of the methodologies in place, Pastor highlights one that's not all that common: heartbeat variability to measure player fatigue. Instead of using GPS technology, the club employs very basic software that features a band receptor which takes all of three minutes to measure heartbeat variability. 

"I'm a bit wary of using GPS when it comes to studying sleep. With everything that we already get the players to do, it might be too much to ask getting them to wear the vests in bed too," jokes Pastor. "There's a time interval between heartbeats and the greater the consistency in this time interval, the greater the level of fatigue. The software itself produces a variability percentage that we can assess. We run this test two or three times a week before breakfast, when the players arrive at the training ground."

Osasuna

Talking of GPS technology, an excellent example of the importance the system has gained within LaLiga is to be found at top-flight newboys Osasuna. An interesting statistic from the first half of the LaLiga campaign tells us that if the half-time scores remained the same at the final whistle, the Navarran outfit would find themselves languishing in the drop zone. However, they'd be amongst the top six if only second-half scorelines were counted.

Los Rojillos are a historic club in Spain, founded a century ago and one of only four clubs - along with Real Madrid, Barcelona and Athletic Club - owned by its members as opposed to being Sports Public Limited Companies. They have traditionally had a reputation as being a side that never gives in and, thanks to their current fitness levels, they're now able to demonstrate that virtue for the full 90 minutes.

One man who has been instrumental in this, along with manager Jagoba Arrasate, is fitness coach Sergi Perez, who has been with the Pamplona-based side since 2018.

"In our training sessions we use GPS technology to monitor metrics like the distance covered by the players, high-intensity efforts, maximum speed, impact, accelerations, decelerations, etc," Perez explained. 

"It can also be used to monitor things live, which is useful when it comes to players carrying knocks. We compare this data with that collected during matches, which we monitor using GPS and Mediacoach, the video-analysis platform that LaLiga offers its 42 professional clubs."

Valencia

The introduction of Big Data in the world of football and its progress hold no secrets for the Valencia coaching staff. The team's impressive statistics speak for themselves and are the result of the combined efforts of a coaching staff that's proved itself capable of getting the very best out of a squad that clinched Copa del Rey glory in 2019.

One of the members of head coach Albert Celades' backroom staff is Javier Minano, a prominent fitness coach within Spanish football, Vicente del Bosque's right-hand man for many years and a tactician who's also worked under Rafa Benitez and Toni Grande, amongst others. 

"During my career, I've carried out a scientific study, a doctoral thesis, and then with the emergence of the GPS technology, I found myself faced with such an overwhelming amount of data," Minano revealed. "You collect lots of information and it's difficult to interpret and the only possible approach was a scientific one.

"Perhaps the biggest revolution I've witnessed in all these years was when I was at Real Madrid, with the release of a program called AMESCO through which we started to receive information about the effort put in by all of the players during matches. That was nearly 20 years ago now.

"Another of the most significant changes I've witnessed is the increase in the number of games. Playing twice a week greatly alters the training programme compared to having one match per week. The whole training schedule is targeted at ensuring that the player is in the best possible shape on those two matchdays."

As the number of games and physical demands placed on players have increased over the years, there has been a parallel rise in awareness about the importance of fitness training, through the influence of science and technology.

"The player has a far more acute sporting culture in every sense and takes better care of themselves. This applies not just to the conditioning training but also to their personal care regimes, including rest, weight and their diet, etc."