Hammers get a head start in the fitness stakes

The countdown to the 2006-07 Premiership campaign begins today as West Ham United's first team squad return for full pre-season training, but the expertise of the sports science and medical staff at Upton Park means that Alan Pardew's men have already been given a head start.

Under the supervision of Technical Director Niall Clark, the players all reported to Chadwell Heath on Thursday and Friday to take part in field and lab tests, designed to measure their levels of fitness after the long summer break and enabling the sports science team to tailor the initial pre-season schedule to each individual's need.

"The rationale behind the testing is to give us an indication of where the players are at as they prepare to begin pre-season training," says Niall. "We need to look at how well they have they followed their off-season programme and what shape they will be in when we resume training.

"They split into two groups and did one day of lab testing and one day of field testing each, to give us an overall picture of all the different areas of fitness. A good friend of mine was formerly a lecturer at Leeds University and they have kindly brought their equipment in to help us with the lab testing.

"Obviously we test them on the basic issues - height, weight, body fat, muscle mass, etc. We then do the VO2 Max test, which measures their volume of oxygen, and we also do what is called an OBLA (Onset of Blood Lactate Accumulation) test, which tells us a player's lactate threshold - basically the intensity at which he can run before his lactate profile shoots up.

"That gives us an indication of what level we can work him at before we raise that speed level. We also do some practical field tests - 10 metres, 20 metres, agility, power jumps - and then an aerobic test.

"It has been a long off-season this year - the players have had six and a half weeks off, which is a long time compared to the last two years, when they have been involved in play-off finals or started earlier in the Championship.

"I was concerned about the impact that would have, but I've got to say that they have all come back in good shape and it looks very encouraging. They have looked after themselves and followed their programmes in the summer, and I would guess that the majority have come back in better shape than last year in terms of body fat.

"The thing is, if they have put on a bit of weight, then that is perfectly fine. Yes, we want them to maintain their fitness during the summer, but we also need them to have a lot of rest. They had a long, 10-month season last year, and it is vital to get complete rest, both mentally and physically.

"With a European campaign to look forward to this coming season, they are going to be tested to the limit again, and that is why we demand that they have a period of total rest in the summer.

"It's all about getting the balance right and, after the testing, it looks as though they all have. I'm happier than I thought I would be, we are at a better starting point than we were last year, and we also have an extra week in pre-season this year, so I haven't got to try to pack it all in, which should give us a good base for the season ahead."