'I first discovered my turn of pace when I was playing football as a kid.' - Michael East, British 1500m Commonwealth Gold medalist.
Football, as in many sports, relies heavily on the player’s ability to run, both in short fast bursts and over an extended period of time. Runners and footballers have a mutual respect: Mo Farah (a lifelong Arsenal fan) demonstrated his by joining his beloved team for a one-off training session, just as the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, has done with Manchester United, and he’s also reputed to have given Argentina International Sergio Aguero speed tips. Through publicity stunts, such instances do highlight the crossover in the sports.
We recently saw Adam Gemili’s smooth transition from aspiring professional footballer to Great Britain runner. At just eighteen Gemili was playing professional football in League 2 for Dagenham and Redgrave and had previously spent seven years at Chelsea’s Youth Academy. At the beginning of 2012 he decided to focus full time on Athletics and it proved to be the right call. He picked up the 100m Gold in The 2012 World Junior Championships and set an astonishing time of 19.98s over 200m in the 2013 World Championships. Previously, only Usain Bolt and Alonso Edward have run sub-20-second times as teenagers!
Compared to the majority of other ball sports, footballers run further. Depending on which survey you read, the average midfielder runs around 7 miles per match, for other positions slightly less. In comparison to rugby’s 4.3, tennis’s 3 and basketball’s 2.5 miles this is a substantial difference. It is calculated that Beckham ran 10 miles in a World Cup Qualifier for England against Greece. This doesn’t mean that the sport is physically more demanding as, of course, tennis will involve more sprints and rugby will involve more strength.
It is therefore essential for footballers to be talented endurance runners. It has often been noticed by fellow professionals and managers that the best footballers are the ones that stay behind after training re-working ball skills and running drills. Dirk Kuyt (who is just 2 caps away from making 100 appearances for his country) famously built up his impressive endurance by running up and down sand dunes for hours. At the other end of the spectrum I doubt anyone that has played amateur 5-a-side on a cold Winter’s evening hasn’t cursed their lack of training runs as their chest burns and legs wobble!
There is of course far more money spread among a far larger pool of athletes in football. However for some athletes such as Gemili, running seems likely to bring far more rewards both personally and financially.
The rest of us will never reach such heights. Though we should remember to quite what a degree running will help us in our floundering amateur football careers.