Goalkeepers do much less running around than outfield players. So it’s easy to think “goalkeepers don’t have to be fit”.
It’s fair to say that at lower levels of football goalkeepers can get away with having lower fitness levels and more body fat than their team mates. Remember that guy Wayne Shaw at Sutton United who ate a pie while sitting on the bench in a 5th round FA Cup fixture against Arsenal? Ask yourself whether he could have reached that level of football as an outfield player.
And to a much lesser extent, that’s how it used to be in the top flight. Goalkeepers didn’t exactly eat pies in full view of live TV cameras — but Peter Schmeichel, David Seaman, Neville Southall, Mark Bosnich and many other professionals were noticeably more “chunky” than their team mates. It wasn’t unusual at the time.
But the “fat goalkeeper” stereotype is dying. Take a look at some of the very best Keepers in the game right now: Jan Oblak, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, David De Gea, Hugo Lloris, Thibaut Cortois, Alisson Becker, Manuel Neuer. It’s no coincidence that the top Goalkeepers are in great shape. They’re agile, flexible, fast — but also strong. They look just as fit as outfield players.
So let’s talk about precisely how high fitness levels factor into a goalkeeper’s game, and what you can do to become fitter yourself.
The Importance Of Fitness In Goalkeeping
Keepers can come in different shapes and sizes. But what top level keepers have in common is a tremendous athletic ability.
What truly sets you apart as a goalkeeper is your pace, agility, and strength.
Keepers aren’t consistently running around for 90 minutes. This means they’re expected to be able to beat opposing players to the ball with short, explosive bursts of pace:
- Through balls. If a through ball is played and an attacker is running onto it, then you need to be fast (and alert) enough to get there first. Winning 50/50 through balls is essential given that the attacker ought to have less energy than you.
- Crosses. When the ball is whipped into the box you’ll have to come off your line. Successfully gathering a cross requires pace and quick footwork. If your fitness levels are low, you’ll struggle to get off the mark to take the ball in flight. This leads to mistiming and “flapping”, which you definitely don’t want.
- Sweeping. You’ll regularly need to take on the role of a defender by playing the ball out from your feet (e.g. backpasses, balls outside the box). It requires bursts of pace to meet a poor backpass and clear it from danger, or to dribble with the ball if you’re under pressure from an opposing striker. Modern Keepers are part-sweeper, too.
Goalkeeping requires a cat-like agility that comes with regular fitness training. Here’s where agility factors into your game:
- Positioning. Adjusting your starting position with sharp, light footsteps (while in the ‘set’ position) enables you to respond to imminent danger. You might be a great reader of the game, but being slow and heavy-footed will hinder your preparation for key moments.
- Close range efforts. There’s times when you have to act on instinct to produce a point blank save. The shorter your reaction time, the more chance you have of success. Your fitness levels are directly linked to your ability to respond quickly.
- Deflections. Being mentally alert has limitations. You need the physical sharpness to change direction at a split instant. This can only be achieved with good fitness. Check out my post on Goalkeeper reflex & agility training to learn more.
- Second balls. If you (or your defender) makes a save, but the ball isn’t clear from danger, then there might be a second attempt at goal. Getting up fast, rushing across to the ball — making the spectacular save — is only possible if you’re fit and agile enough to do so.
Goalkeepers need to be physically strong in order to out-muscle opposing players and keep hold of hard shots.
- Barging. A lot goes unseen inside the congested penalty box. The opposition will try all sorts of underhanded tactics to push the goalkeeper around. There’s no point crying to the referee at every barge; you just to be physically strong, in order to maintain your position and push through the crowds when needed.
- The high ball. Pushing through a crowd of players to gather the high ball is one of the trickiest aspects of goalkeeping. Bravery will only carry you so far. You need good upper body strength to gain an extra advantage. Bulking up — without the loss of agility and flexibility — is the goal.
- 1v1s. There’s nothing more off-putting and intimidating for a striker than a rock-solid goalkeeper diving at their feet to steal the ball. If you’re physically weak then you offer little threat to the opposition, and rely entirely on your technique.
- Strong arms/hands. Weak arms and hands will result in unnecessary goals. You need to have enough strength to overpower the force of the shots on goal.
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How To Improve Goalkeeper Fitness
Goalkeepers can make gains in pace, agility, and strength by alternating between different training exercises. This also keeps workouts fresh.
I’ll run you through some goalkeeper fitness exercises for both over the field and in the gym.
Most goalkeeper workouts focus on a combination of footwork, handling technique, mental sharpness/alertness, agility and around physical fitness.
The following training session from Northampton FC shows keepers using the agility ladder before touching a cone and producing a save. The exercise mimics the sharp changes in direction (think deflections/second attempts/close range efforts) required by goalkeepers during games. Note how the goalkeepers constantly adjust their feet in anticipation for shots around the body.
There’s various ways to structure similar fitness exercises. Take the following goalkeeper fitness video from Adrian Clewlow as a fine example; it’s an immense workout with top notch handling. Highly recommend watching!
As you’ll note from these videos, the key to a good goalkeeper workout is the service and frequency. The aim is to have balls played around the body; not constantly blasted in the top corner or over the bar.
Inside the gym goalkeepers can focus on both their core strength (for power) and cardio (for speed and endurance).
In the following video Jack Butland talks about how his workout routine is geared towards replicating what he does on the pitch, making him feel stronger, sharper and more dominant. Interestingly, he jokes about how Keepers tend to shy away from the cardio side.
For gym workout exercises, I recommend watching the following video. The exercises are made to look easy — but that’s a reflection of the Keeper’s high levels of strength and endurance. The exercises he performs can be done indoor and outdoor, and don’t require access to gym equipment. Goalkeepers of all ages can practice these workouts.
For adults looking to build strength at the gym, here’s a fantastic workout video from Conor O’Keefe which focuses on improving several key areas needed for Goalkeeping — including jump height, spring, kicking distance and speed. It’s 20 minutes long, so there’s plenty of points to take inspiration from.
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Now, to re-address the question in the title of the article — yes, goalkeepers need to be fit. There’s no doubt the modern day Keeper has to devote a large portion of their training efforts to fitness and athleticism.
Of course, healthy eating also helps. But hopefully this article has convinced you that devouring meat pies during FA Cup fixtures isn’t the way to go. You know your own body better than anyone, so eat sensibly. Check out TheProteinWorks Blog for advice on healthy eating, dieting, building strength, and bulking up.