League action is already underway across a number of European countries, but for the likes of Franck Ribery, Michael Ballack, Raul and Juninho Pernambucano, stars of the Bundesliga, Premiership, La Liga and Ligue 1 respectively, pre-season training is still the order of the day. The French top flight kicks off in the first weekend in August, while play will start a week later in Germany and England. As for Spanish giants Real Madrid, they will not begin their league title defence until the end of August.

FIFA.com spoke to fitness coach Oliver Schmidtlein about his favoured methods of preparation, the impact of players' diet and the importance of psychology. Schmidtlein works for the German Football Federation (DFB) and, while he plans to open his own practice in Munich, he will also be heavily involved in preparing Germany's senior side for the UEFA EURO 2008.

Hard work the key
Regardless of whether you play amateur football or are one of Europe's top professionals, the only way to start the season is with hard work. "Professional clubs carry out evaluations at the beginning of the pre-season period. There are performance tests available that show what kind of condition the player is in," says Schmidtlein.

"After that, individual and team-orientated training plans are usually drawn up. You can generally divide preparatory training into three phases. At the beginning, the proportion of volume to intensity is 70/30, after that it's 50/50 and currently it's at 30/70."

With the season about to kick off, most professionals in the European leagues are currently in the third and final phase of preparation. In Germany, for example, the top teams have already battled it out in the recent League Cup. "The teams involved are currently in a highly intensive preparatory phase, since they all take the League Cup very seriously," says Schmidtlein.

He suggests keeping a special eye on players who were involved in the Copa America 2007 or the AFC Asian Cup 2007. "It would be nice if these players were in the same good condition as the other players who had a longer break over the summer, but the physical and mental strain on them during the season will be very high," he warns. "Without a break, it will all build up and lead to situations of stress. But there are special tests that can be carried out nowadays and the right measures can then be taken to avoid this kind of thing."

Physical and mental strength

In Schmidtlein's opinion, two of the most important factors in pre-season preparation are the mental and physical strength of individual players and the team as a whole. "DFB fitness coaches concentrate on movement training and routines, since they form the basis of a lot of different exercises.

"Otherwise, given the short amount of time we have for our get-togethers, the other elements of training wouldn't be as effective," explains Schmidtlein of his work with the German national team. In contrast, he highlights that "at individual club level they are not so limited time-wise, so much more is possible in terms of player-conditioning work."

The 42-year-old sees psychology as one of the most important elements of training, and also one which has long been neglected. "It's critical that psychology starts playing a greater role in football," he says, and points to a tour of Canada when he was with 1860 Munich to illustrate his point: "The club took me out to Toronto in a physiotherapist's role, and even the college team that we played against had their own psychologist."

Schmidtlein is quick to underline the importance of looking after the mental side of things as far as professional footballers are concerned. "They're just human beings like us. Any problems which professional sportsmen and women encounter can affect their performance, but working with a sports psychologist can help to reduce the effect of this kind of crisis," he tells FIFA.com.

"When a striker goes through a barren patch or when a player gets injured, having a specialist on hand can really help them." The DFB fitness coach also has very fixed ideas about pre-season preparation: "Special psychological measures combined with tactical work can already help a player before the season begins and prepare them mentally for the stresses of winning and losing."

Timing is everything
The right food, at the right time, as well as taking on board enough liquids on a regular basis, is another important factor in a successful pre-season. "Before and during the 2006 World Cup, we introduced the concept of 'nutrition timing' to the players. This wasn't just about what but also when to eat certain foods and nutritional supplements," explains Schmidtlein, who has worked with US fitness expert Mark Verstegen.

The subject of nutrition is becoming ever more complex for today's generation of professional footballers. Special nutritional supplements mixed with protein and carbohydrate shakes play just as important a role as ensuring correct fluid-intake levels.

"A professional footballer drinks between four and six litres per day," explains Schmidtlein, "but water alone isn't enough to keep the right balance. You need the correct proportion of sugars and minerals."

Changes at DFB level
As the conversation draws to a close, Oliver Schmidtlein looks ahead to the coming months and in particular Germany's preparations for EURO 2008. "In August or September, the whole DFB team will get together and thrash out all the details with the coaches and with Oliver Bierhoff. For instance, we will fine tune our exercise routines to make them as effective as possible."

The DFB's fitness regimes, particularly in the build-up to major tournaments, are also set to include all-new running exercises, to name just one of the changes brought in by Schmidtlein and his fellow coaches. "We're changing our sprint and speed training. The running exercises will be adapted to the individual players and their positions," explains the experienced physio.

One thing is for sure, should Germany qualify for next summer's continental showpiece, they will not be underprepared.