With clubs now well into their pre-season campaign, we look into the methods, technologies and good old hard work being put in by players, managers and coaches before the big kick off next month.
Part One: In part one of our pre-season feature, we visited the off-season performance camp put on by legendary sprinter Michael Johnson at St George's Park.
Damian Roden is in charge of fitness at the club that lost less days to injury than any other in the Premier League last season. When it came to seeking out expertise on pre-season training, testing and injury prevention methods, there was only one man to talk to.
Mark Holmes: As head of sports science at Stoke, what are your broad responsibilities?
Damian Roden: It's up to me, with the coaching staff and the manager, to plan each stage of the season.
We break the season into six stages, pre-season being the obvious first phase, so we'll focus on certain elements of technique, tactics and fitness during all of those phases depending on the amount of games, the amount of training days and so on.
MH: Going back to the end of last season, what instructions were given to the players regarding fitness and training over the summer?
DR: A couple of weeks before the end of the season we presented (training programmes) to the guys.
Obviously there were different scenarios; there were some that were going to the World Cup, they were training all the way through; there were some players that had two or three internationals, they had another three weeks/month on top of the season; there were some that had a full seven/eight weeks off.
It was based on individual situations. The ones that were in the World Cup were coming back later anyway; the ones that had internationals were coming back when everyone else was coming back, but they had only three to four weeks down period so they had a different programme to those that were off for eight weeks.
We gave them some nutritional advice as to how to maintain muscle mass and a healthy body fat percentage, and we wanted them all to have a period of what we call active rest, keeping themselves ticking over with golf, swimming, walking or whatever, and then a period when we gradually work them up to what we're going to do in pre-season.
MH: Do you keep in touch with the players over the summer to make sure they're doing the work or do you trust them to get on with it?
DR: It was a little bit of both depending on their holidays and when they're around.
Myself or someone from the medical team would always be available at the training ground for them, though, and we advise them to come in after a month (into pre-season) when we do some tests on them to see whether they need to step up their training or carry on how they're going.
It depends on the individual situations how much we see them over the summer, but we gave them targets on the various tests that we did throughout the season, various targets that they had to come back and achieve so if they didn't do the work it would be obvious.
Thomas Sorensen: Undergoes a test at St George's Park
MH: What can you tell us about the testing you do on the players when they return for pre-season?
DR: The first test was to look at the body composition. We don't necessarily pay too much attention to weight but if they put on a lot, first and foremost we want to see whether it's muscle mass or fat mass.
From the technology we used at (the FA's national football centre) St George's Park we could see whether it's fat mass or muscle mass and can make a judgement as to whether they've just been inactive.
They'll have less lean mass if they haven't done the extent of the work they should have done - and if they've been eating the wrong foods that will show in their fat mass.
The body composition is an important test because, for example, if someone has put on a lot of weight, expecting them to train with the team is the equivalent of them training at the end of the season with a backpack with five kilos in for example. It's going to place an excess load on them.
Another test was done by the medical team who have got a functional movement screen they devised themselves looking at key movements in football and how players are able to cope with those movements so we can see what deficiencies they have and make a judgement on whether they do the full training load or whether work on those deficiencies first before we go into that training load.
The information they get from that test determines what pre-training strength work they do and what post-training strength work they do to correct any deficiencies.
The third test was test of strength and power; we do various jump tests, a squat jump, a counter-movement from left and right, and then what we call the reactive jump to assess compared to last year where their strength and power levels are.
If they're as strong as when they left we can carry on where we left off. If they've lost a little bit obviously we need to build strength back up and so that test gives us an idea of where we can start in terms of the explosive work we do in the gym and on the pitch.
MH: What about the VO2 max test that a lot of clubs make their players do on the first day back?
DR: The run until you drop test doesn't exist, largely through safety reasons. If you take them to their maximum on the first day and they're not prepared for it you're going to get injuries.
Also, the tests we put in place we want to be able to repeat at any point during a season so that we can gauge whether the training we're doing out on the pitch is right, whether the training we're doing in the gym is right.
The first tests were done on the first day back and we'll test them next around the first game of the season which takes us into our second phase of the season. We try to test every single phase so that's why it's important that the tests we use can be safely reproduced at any point during the season.
Re-testing like that throughout the season is good for us to show the players that from what you're doing out on the pitch and what you're doing in the gym, you can see that you're improving. And if there's a downtrend we can get to the bottom of why it's not improving.
Damian Roden (r): Watches on as Marc Wilson and Jon Walters get to work
MH: Is the fact that you don't use a VO2 max test an example of football fitness and testing constantly evolving and improving?
DR: Yeah. We do a running test but a sub-maximal one. We use heart rate monitors looking at their maximum heart rate and then we'll do four blocks of three minutes for example, and we look to see how quickly they recover after each block.
That gives us a good indication of their endurance levels but for us the whole thing is about being as injury free as we possibly can be so the ultimate aim is to have every player for that Aston Villa game at the start of the season.
By implementing a gradual build-up you're not going to develop fatigue, and you're maintaining freshness while still improving your fitness levels.
It's taking football as the starting point that is key, so looking at the demands of football and training accordingly. Gone are the days where you need to be able to run five kilometres at one pace because football is all about repeat bouts of high-intensity movements rather than one-paced running.
So we introduce a football as soon as possible to regain co-ordination, to get the players to start working with each other, understanding technically, tactically, an awareness of how the new players play.
It makes more sense to start that straight away, and the fitness levels will be a by-product of playing football from the start.
MH: How much do you individualise the players' training schedules based on the results of these tests done on the first day back?
DR: First and foremost it's about getting a reference for the team training so having a play of what we want the team as a whole to do over the course of pre-season.
But if you've got a structure in place, and the coaches and the manager and the medical team all know the situation there, on a daily basis we can say, based on the data we have and based on the way the players are responding, 'that's a little bit too much for that player at this moment in time' so we'll pull them out of this part of the session or we'll modify the amount they do on that day.
It's individualising for every individual within that team.
Damian Roden: Puts Charlie Adam, Dionatan Teixeira and Steve Sidwell through their paces
MH: What else can you tell us about the early stages of pre-season at Stoke?
DR: We start with bigger games so we'll start with 11 v 11 games because that's the least intensive compared to seven v seven or four v four games for example.
We do that to ease the players back in, get rhythm and co-ordination, and we'll make observations of whether they can maintain quality for a period of time in training but that will be backed up by the stats or GPS units where you get an idea of the distances covered at different speeds, how many accelerations, how many decelerations and how many impacts within the session so that you know the load that's being placed on each individual and also how each individual is responding based on the same stimulus.
Then we obviously individualise the schedules if necessary, for example if someone is standing out as having done a little bit too much on a certain day.
MH: As a fitness coach whose job it is to make sure the players stay fit, how important is pre-season in terms of injury prevention and fitness for the full season?
DR: Our approach - and I think it showed (that it works) towards the back end of the season - is that we treat every phase the same.
We'll have a body of work in pre-season where we try to ease them in and gradually improve their fitness levels and stay injury free but when we get to the next phase we'll review, see where we're at in terms of all the results that we get and then just repeat the cycle.
The players understood last season that we're going to carry on working as hard as we do in July in March, April and May.
There's no tapering off but that's why we ease the players in so they're fresh ideally all the way through the season rather than having a big overload period in pre-season and then tapering off because that's what a lot of clubs do.
If we can keep increasing all the way through the season, the back end of the season should be a time when we'll be able to overwork teams.
MH: Is the six-stage schedule fairly unique?
DR: There are some clubs that do it - they might do it slightly differently in terms of phasing, they might have four phases or three phases - but it's what we call basic periodisation so if there's any type of training that you want to get an effect from you periodise how you do it.
So you do something for a period of time then review it, increase it, review it, increase it and review it all the way through that particular training cycle.
It's just trying to apply common sense. We work players when they're fresh and we recover them when they've played a hard game or had a hard session.
MH: You must see the fact that you lost fewer days to injury than any other Premier League club last season as a justification of the methods?
DR: A lot of credit has to be given to the medical team because it wasn't just last season that they had the best record.
I think Stoke have been one of the best for the last five or six years, and the same medical team have been in place for that time.
We've built on top of that but the medical team here that we've inherited are excellent.
Check back on Wednesday for interviews with MK Dons manager Karl Robinson, Brighton midfielder Rohan Ince, and new Leicester coach Kevin Phillips.