Coaches and athletes are continually searching for the most effective training program to improve performance on the field. Soccer is a rather complex sport that requires considerable technical aptitude as well as exceptional physical capabilities. Included in the list of important physical capabilities are speed, power and agility. Most coaches employ some type of strength, plyometric or sprint training to improve these three parameters. In this article, the effectiveness and usefulness of sprint training is discussed. Unfortunately, there are only a few well designed research studies that address the concept of sprint training as a way to improve athletic performance. However, two recent studies provide some insight into the use of high-speed sprinting as a soccer training tool.
The effectiveness of any training program should be evaluated by three essential components: speed, power and agility. Typically speed is evaluated by sprint performance such as a timed 20-60m run. Power is often determined by performing some sort of vertical jump or drop jump test. Lastly agility is determined using a short shuttle run or run through a slalom-type course. In the following studies, the researchers have utilized these measures to evaluate two somewhat similar types of sprint training programs.
In the first study, Kotzamanidis and colleges at Arostotle University in Greece examined the effects of combining sprint and strength training on performance (Kotzamanidis et al., 2005). Their sprint training program consisted of 4-6 maximal effort, 30m sprints, separated by a full recovery (3min). This was added as part of a 3 day per week traditional strength training program. The authors found that adding sprint training improved 30m sprint performance by 3.5% and increased vertical jumping ability by 5-7%. Strength training alone improved strength but failed to improve either speed or power variable.
In the second study, Markovic and co-workers at the University of Zagreb in Croatia compared plyometric training to sprint training on variables of speed, power and agility (Markovic et al., 2007). Their programs consisted of multiple hurdle and depth jumps (plyometric group) or repeated sprints (sprint group). The figure af right outlines the specific exercises included and shows the progressive nature of the programs (click on figure to enlarge). The emphasis of both approaches was on maximal effort repetitions separated by a full recovery. After 11 weeks of training, both groups showed similar improvements on various tests of power (i.e. vertical jumping ability) by 7-16%. However, the sprint training improved 20m sprint time by 3% and 20m shuttle run time by 4% whereas plyometrics failed to improve either measure of speed or agility.
Based on these studies, it appears that a sprint training program can improve running speed, power and agility and may be more effective that weight training alone or plyometric training. However, there are a few questions regarding the applicability of these two studies to youth soccer players. First, both studies used subject that ranged in age from 17-20 years. While it seems likely that younger players would respond similarly, there is no guarantee. Second, the studies examined the effects of sprint training independent from other types of soccer training. That is, neither study used sprint training as part of a regular soccer training session. Likewise, it’s not clear if the improvements in performance described in the two studies translate into increased performance during a match. So, it is possible that including sprint training as part of practice may or may not be as effective as reported. Third, neither study discussed injury potential. High-speed running does pose an injury risk, particularly hamstring injuries. In order to lower that risk each training session should be preceded by a thorough warm-up that includes stretching. Training should also be followed by an active recovery and cool-down period. Despite these concerns, it seems reasonable to advise that sprint training incorporated as part of an over all soccer training program would be beneficial at improving speed, power and agility.
It’s worth noting that using sprint training to improve performance is quite different than using repeated sprints to increase endurance. In the former, the emphasis is on quality, high speed running with proper technique and full recovery between sprints. That is, the focus is on “running fast”. In the later, the emphasis is on volume, repeated efforts with minimal recovery time with the focus on taxing the cardiovascular and muscle bioenergetics systems. Repeated sprints to “get in shape” will probably have minimal effects on speed, power or agility.
The advantages of a sprint training program is that it take relatively little time away from a soccer training session. After warm-up, a spring training session takes 15-20 min to complete. A second advantage is that sprint training does not require any additional equipment such as hurdles or boxes.
In summary, research strongly suggests that incorporation a session short (10-50m), high intensity sprints separated by full recovery into a training program will improve speed, power and agility. It’s important that the program be progressive in nature, designed with an adequate warm-up and focus on the quality of the efforts.
Kotoamanidis C, Chatzopoulos D, Michailidis C, Papaikovou G, Patikas D (2005) the effect of a combined high-intensity strength and speed training program on the running and jumping ability of soccer players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19:369-375.
Markovic G, Jukic I, Milanovic D, Metikos D (2007) Effects of sprint and plyometric training on muscle function and athletic performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 21:543-549..