To make the most accurate calls during a soccer match, a referee is told to stay no more than 20 yards from the ball at all times. The only way to do this when the ball whizzes from player to player through 90 minutes of nearly nonstop motion? Run.
When the World Cup starts on June 12 in Brazil, soccer players representing 32 countries won't be the only ones performing impressive feats of athleticism. In each game, the referees will cover 6 to 8 miles while scrutinizing every move of the action. Players average an estimated 7 miles per game, but typically stay within assigned zones, which can allow for short rests. Referees are in constant motion, tracking the ball all over the field.
"The closer we are to the ball, the more credibility we have in our decisions," says 39-year-old Mark Geiger, a veteran professional soccer referee from Beachwood, New Jersey. "The game is so fast, so we have a lot of sprinting and pretty long runs that we have to do in order to give ourselves that credibility."
Geiger, who has officiated professionally since 2004, will be the first American referee to participate in the World Cup since 2002. Geiger is guaranteed to referee only one game; which one won't be decided until a few days in advance. On the basis of that initial performance, he may be invited to continue working as the tournament progresses. He partially attributes the honor to a fitness regimen designed to help him keep up with the world's best players.
"When I started refereeing as a kid, I was hoping to just make a few extra bucks. I wasn't really expecting to have to train for games," Geiger, whose refereeing debut came at age 13, says. "I did run track in high school so that training was keeping me fit, but as I got older I grew my fitness training to prepare me for my matches."
Geiger competed as a cross country and middle-distance track runner in high school in addition to playing soccer. Until early 2013, he worked as a math teacher at Lacey Township High School, in Lanoka Harbor, New Jersey, before deciding to devote his full attention to officiating. Although his running career doesn't extend beyond the occasional neighborhood 5K, he remains connected to the sport as an assistant track and cross country coach at Lacey Township.
Now a full-time professional referee for Major League Soccer, Geiger works for the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), a company with the mission to boost the caliber of soccer officials in North America. Part of that improvement comes from enhancing the refs' physical stamina, which is why the company hired Seattle-based fitness trainer and former collegiate soccer coach Matt Hawkey three years ago.
"The body is extremely complex. It doesn't know if you are a referee or if you are playing," says Hawkey, who is one of five dedicated soccer referee fitness trainers in the world. "I look for strength levels, explosive levels, aerobic levels and anaerobic levels in each referee."
From that assessment, he builds individualized training programs for every ref employed by the company. According to Hawkey, if you want to be physically ready to ref at the highest level, your body has to be prepared to handle frequent explosive sprints over 90 or more minutes. An additional challenge is that the most critical decisions during a game come when a referee is most tired.
"The last 15 minutes, the players are tired and you are tired, but you need to keep going," Geiger says. "There were times I've left the field with nothing left in the gas tank."
Hawkey's job these past six months has been to ensure Geiger will have plenty in the tank during critical matches in Brazil. To do this, he's designed several interval workouts that are more physically demanding than an entire game.
"I'll throw something in the workout that will absolutely crush Mark because I want to see his response," Hawkey says. "I will have to check my texts to see how many times he's cursed me."
A typical interval workout for Geiger involves sets of repeated full-out sprints with little to no recovery in between. That's followed by an agility or mental exercise to make sure his mind stays sharp when his body is tired. One such exercise requires Geiger to shuffle left, right, front or back, focusing on directions from a partner, all while throwing and catching a ball.
Hawkey's training plan is designed not only to build stamina, but also to boost recovery. During the MLS season, Geiger works at least three games a month, not including international tournaments. His legs need to be fresh on a weekly basis, all while traveling across the country and sometimes the world.
If you think you can match the physical stamina of a soccer referee, Hawkey suggests trying FIFA's referee fitness test, which is one of many requirements to work matches at the international level.
The test requires you to complete six 40-meter sprints with 90 seconds of rest in between. Each sprint has to be faster than six seconds. After another 10-minute recovery, you are then required to complete 10 laps on the track, running 150 meters in 30 seconds and walking 50 meters in 35 seconds -- a 2.5-mile fartlek in 21:30 with an average running pace of 5:20 per mile.
"But for me, that's just your minimum requirement to be a referee," Hawkey says. "Our standards are quite a bit higher than that."
Those standards include completing the same set of six 40-meter sprints, but with only 10 seconds of recovery instead of the 90 that FIFA requires. Hawkey also emphasizes strength and explosiveness, putting the referees through weight training and plyometrics in addition to the 20 to 25 weekly miles of sprint, fartlek and tempo workouts.
Which is why Geiger passed FIFA's test easily and now feels physically ready to handle the demands of the World Cup.
"There certainly is a lot of pressure. There are more cameras in these games so every decision that we make is going to be scrutinized and put under a microscope," he says. "We are looking to just stay focused and trust in our physical and technical training, and have faith that we are going to make the right decision out there.
"The players deserve a quality referee," Geiger says. "If we want to do a service to this sport then we need to step up and meet their expectations. It's so important for us to be in that top physical form."