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Improving your fitness for refereeing

Here are some suggestions for how you can improve your fitness to referee youth soccer.  There are lots of other places where you can find advice on how to improve your fitness.  What's special about this one is that it has very limited aims.  It does not try to convince you of the transcendant happiness of life long fitness; you will find no exhortations here to strive for an "endorphin high" -- good though these things may well be.  The aim is simply
  • to help you get a little fitter, while
  • not getting hurt, and
  • suffering as little as possible.
We who wrote this advice (old, slow referees who struggle to stay fit enough to run with the teenagers) can identify with these aims because they are our aims.  What's written here has helped us.  We hope it helps you too.

If you already have an active fitness program, you'll probably think that what is proposed here is unbelievably wimpy. That's fine.  You don't need this!  Others will find the whole idea preposterous.  "I'm supposed to work out to prepare to volunteer in a children's recreation program?"  Well, that's OK too.  But, however (much) you improve your fitness, you'll referee better and have a better time doing it.  If these suggestions help, that's great.  Look at what's suggested here, do as much as you can and as you enjoy doing, and ignore the rest.

The overriding concern is don't hurt yourself.  There are a number of suggestions made below about how to structure your workouts so as to reduce the most common causes of injury (which are doing too much too soon and doing it in dangerous ways and places).  But even before that,

Consult your physician before starting this or any new program of exercise.

especially if you are over forty, and follow his or her recommendations as to any limits or cautions you should observe.  Only you can decide how to adapt this or any other exercise regime to your specific circumstances. Specifically,

Neither AYSO, nor any of its affiliated organizations, sponsors, or volunteers,
accepts any liability for any accidents, injuries or other damages of any kind
that may result from following any or all of the suggestions given here.

The suggestions made here are just that, suggestions.  An individual exercise program must be an individual decision. Design one that works for you, with whatever medical and other advice you deem appropriate.

The Laws of (getting fit for) the Game

Like everything else concerned with soccer refereeing, it turns out that fitness can be covered in 17 "Laws".  Like the other Laws, these should be applied if (when, and as) "in the opinion of the referee" they are appropriate.  Trifling breaches should not be penalized.
1. Refereeing is running
You gotta run!  All that other exercise you get (aerobic arm wrestling, etc.) is all good stuff.  But to referee, you have to run.  Although other exercises work out some of the muscles needed for running, nothing gets them all quite as well as... running.
2. But that shouldn't be all
Other exercise may not be enough by itself, but it sure helps.  Including some other kind of exercise allows you to keep up your fitness when you can't run (e.g., when you're too sore, or during the winter when it's dark too early).  Choose something aerobic (puff! puff!) that you enjoy and try and mix it in every third workout or so.  Something of low impact stress or that uses different muscle groups from running (e.g. swimming) is great for when you're feeling sore.  A workout machine in front of a TV has the great benefit that it you can use the time to watch soccer also!
3. Do it often
Exercising really hard only once a week is a good way to strain or pull something (it's what referees who never work on their fitness do, and a strain or a pull is, sooner or later, usually the result).  Instead, try to work out once every 2-3 days, with each session being at least as long as one half of the games you plan to referee (e.g. 30 mins for a referee working Under 12 games).  Try to get in a routine (e.g. every third day, or Mon-Wed-Sat).  If you try to decide each day whether this is a "workout day", the answer will too often be "NO!"
4. Gently!
Especially if you have not been running regularly recently, start gently at first and slowly increase the effort level.  This is even true (perhaps especiallytrue) if you "used to" work out a lot.  Beware "Busted Boomer" Syndrome: that unhappy fate of a 42 year old body with a 22 year old self image.  Start by walking and stretching, move to "power" walking, and then mix running and walking, one part running to two walking at first, and then slowly move the balance to two or three to one over time.
5. But not slowly
Don't jog.  Run!  Shuffling along at a snail's pace is something that you never need to do on a soccer field, so don't practice doing it now.  Instead, alternate between running (at about half speed, as you would following play) and walking (as you would when play is stopped or moving slowly).  Over time, as your fitness improves, shift the balance between these.
6. Run out your front door
Some people enjoy running.  You are not (yet) that kind of person (or you wouldn't be reading this).  We've suggested that you work out quite often, so it's important that your workouts are as brief as possible, to limit the total amount of time required.  One way to waste a lot of time is to drive somewhere (e.g. to some running track across town) to work out and then drive back again when you're done.  Your time's better spent running, not travelling to run.  So, unless your front door is in a major urban area, or on the side of a cliff, start running the moment you leave it. 
You may wonder whether the hard surfaces of streets or pavements are such good things to run on.  We're going to do something about that in a moment (see 7). That done, it's a tradeoff between the hard but reliable smoothness of most road surfaces against the soft but unpredictable roughness of most natural ones.  In most cases, the convenience of the pavement outside your door wins.  But if you're more comfortable running on grass, and there is a park nearby, by all means run over to it. 
You may also worry at first that you're making a spectacle of yourself in front of your neighbors.  Not to worry!  You'll soon be thinking about other things (puff! puff!).  The neighbors, if they notice you at all, will have nothing but admiration (after all, they're not out there getting fit, are they?).  And the embarassment of puffing past your neighbor on the street is nothing compared to that of being lapped by the local track team (or even worse, that triathlon running grandmother!) on that shiny running track across town.  Better to be by yourself in your friendly local neighborhood.
7. In a new pair of good quality running shoes
These will make running on hard surfaces (like neighborhood streets, see 6) much pleasanter and safer.  Also, when you're not running, they'll make you feel really guilty about having spent all that money and not using them, so you'll run more often (see 3).
8. To the sound of music
Some people really enjoy running.  You are (still) not that kind of person.  Therefore, you will need some distraction, lest you focus too much on feeling sorry for yourself.  A portable music player with headphones is recommended.  Loud rock music is very highly recommended.  It banishes feelings of embarrassment, physical inadequacy, and self pity, as teenagers have long known.  Besides, it will get you to pick your feet up!  Just remember that, since you can't hear what's going on around you, you'll have to keep your head up and look around as you run.  This is not a bad habit for a referee to get into!
9. But not in the hills
Running in the hills makes for pleasanter scenery, a more strenuous workout, and much greater impact stress on bones and joints (particularly when running down the hill).  If you must run in the hills (e.g. the front door of your house is on a hill), try to walk or jog the steeper sections and do your running on the flats. 
10. Warm up
Just as for games, you should warm up before you work hard, to guard against muscle pulls.  How you do this is a very individual thing?  Some folks have elaborate stretching routines; others just jog slowly for a few hundred yards.  The Region's Referee's Handbook has a good set of basic warm ups; as does the AYSO pamphlet Presence Lends Conviction. A slow jog is the basic minimum.
11. S-t-r-e-t-c-h
If you never find yourself uncomfortably "tight" or sore after (or the day after) running or refereeing, you can skip this.  But, if you're like everyone else, try adopting a routine of pre- and post-run stretching to improve your flexibility.  This helps distribute the impact stresses of running more evenly and fluidly, so they do less tearing damage.  (Hint: Sometimes the thing you need to stretch is not the thing that's sore.  Instead, the problem may be something somewhere else that's too tense or inflexible.)  Bob Anderson's book Stretching has a great selection of runner's stretches, along with stretches for almost any other activity you can think of. A regular diet of post-game aspirin (ibuprofen, etc.) is really not a good long term alternative.
12. Don't hurt yourself!
A sprained or even a strained muscle or joint can stop you training for weeks or days, undoing in a moment much of what you've worked for.  Don't increase the intensity of your workouts suddenly, run hard without warming up, run in traffic, or on steep or rough surfaces (especially in poor light), or keep running when you have a sore or tight muscle.
13. If it hurts, stop!
Keeping going when you're tired is admirable.  Keeping going when you're hurt (any sharp pain), or exhausted, or showing any signs of major physical distress (dizzy, faint, extreme or irregular pulse, etc.) is very dangerous.  Stop!  If you can, continue at a walk. If you can't, or if the problem does not rapidly clear up, consult your doctor.  These instructions are known as "the overriding conditions of Law 13".
14. Measure what you do
Keep track of what you're doing, by time or distance. Your subjective sense of how well you're doing is very unreliable and it's easy to get discouraged.  If you regularly run a measured distance, it's easier to keep going, and the continual small improvements will become visible, which will encourage you.  The easiest way is to measure a route near your house (drive it a few times in your car and note the mileage).  If you run that route regularly, extending it slowly as you get fitter, your progress will be clear to you. 
One very useful measurement gadget is an athletic heart rate monitor.  These devices, available at any sports or running shoe store, allow you to watch your pulse rate as you run, so you can make sure that it stays high enough to do you good, but doesn't get so high that the level of stress is unhealthy.
15. Variety for agility
All we have talked about so far is running in a straight line for endurance.  A modicum of endurance and general running strength is the first thing to establish. But once that's done, it's time to add some variety to more closely approximate what you do in a game.  The first step is to add some side stepping and running backwards to your regular runs.  Once or twice each time you run, while running with a clear, flat, traffic free area for some distance in front of you, turn and run backwards for 20 yards, turning back into a forward run at the end.  Vary this by turning into a side step, both left and right, in turn.  Do this slowly at first, it's easy to trip and fall until you get the hang of it.  Eventually, you should be able to do it without stopping or slowing down at either turn.  Then, once this is comfortable, try running the agility run, starting at about 60% speed, and then slowly increasing the speed as you get more agile.
16. Sprinting
Sprinting places extra demands on your muscles for strength and resiliency, so the sudden extra load doesn't cause damage.  Develop this by running small sections (about 50-100 yards) of your regular run at sprint speed.  Transition to sprint speed by taking several short, sharp steps; lengthening your stride as you build up speed.  Slow down carefully.  Sprinting at top speed will feel a little unstable until you have built up the muscle strength to control it.  Once again, start out at about 60% and only gradually increase the speed as you get more control.
17. Stand up at the finish
At the end of each run or sprint, when you're tired, try to get in the habit of not putting your hands on your hips while you recover.  Instead, hold your hands together behind your back.  This doesn't feel nearly as good, but it's better for you - it squares your shoulders and lets you breathe more deeply.  But, far more importantly, it makes you look good.  This won't matter on your neighborhood street, but come game time everyone will admire how calm and in control you look, whereas if your hands are on your hips and your shoulders are slumped over, they'll think "Poor old ref!". After all this work, that is not the effect you want!

Modify, adapt and vary.  Everything here is someone else's suggestion. By far the most important thing (other than not getting hurt) is that you keep going, long after the novelty has worn off.  To that end, you need to find things that work for you.  Experiment!  Add things that seem to help, drop what you can without sliding back, give yourself little rewards for passing milestones (literally).  The real rewards, of course, will come on the field during the season, but anything that keeps you going until then is worthwhile.  And if you do keep going, perhaps you might even one day experience the transcendant happiness of life long fitness - you never know.

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