Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How Fast Can Players Run? How Fast Do They Run?

High-speed running is an integral part of a soccer match. As such, a player’s sprint speed is considered as critical to success. Players are often tested and short sprint times are recorded. Team and positional selections may then be made by picking the fastest players. However, it is not clear how raw sprint speed translates to sprinting during a match. Do faster players use that speed by sprinting at maximal velocity? Do slower players compensate for a lack of raw speed by running at higher percentages of their maximal? Lastly, do the match sprint characteristics of players vary by playing position? Researchers at the Academy for Sports Excellence in Doha, Qatar provide an answer these questions. They found that sprint speed is an important component of a match and that some players do indeed take advantage of that ability.

The study recorded and compared sprint speeds during sprint tests and during match play. The subjects were 16-17 year old members of a high performance academy team Maximal sprint speed was determined as the fastest 10m split time of a 40m sprint. After sprint testing, wide midfield players and central defenders were grouped as the fastest and slowest for their position. A portable GPS system was then used to record player movements during a match and to determine match speed.

The investigators found that the fastest players on the team reached higher absolute running speeds during the match than the slowest players. This was the case regardless of playing position. As for the wide midfielders, both the fastest and slowest players achieved peak match speeds that were about 90% of maximal. Thus, the slower players did not compensate for their lack of foot-speed by running at a higher relative velocity (that is, a higher percentage of their maximal). This may be due to the fact that both run at such a high percentage of maximal. Also, running at greater than 90% of maximal may adversely affect other movements (cutting and stopping) or limit soccer skills such as receiving the ball or shooting.

As for central defenders, the fastest players reached peak sprint speeds during the match of about 84% of maximal. The slower defenders however, compensated for their lack of speed by sprinting at relatively higher velocities, around 89% of maximal.

When comparing the two positions, the fastest midfielders and fastest central defenders had almost identical maximal sprint speeds. However, the midfielders ran at a higher percentage of their maximum. Perhaps the space provided for outside midfielders allows them to reach higher speeds. However, slower central defenders were able to achieve high relative match speeds than the faster defenders. The investigators suggest that for successful central defenders, a “speed threshold” is needed. That is, a certain pace is required for optimal performance and that faster players can reach this pace at a lower percentage of their maximal speed. On the other hand, no such threshold seems to exist for wide midfielders. They are less likely to restrain their speed during play. That is, midfielders run at ~90% of maximal regardless of their maximal ability.

The authors conclude that high relative running speeds are reached during a match (~90% of maximal). Acceleration of the first step is traditionally seen a critical to performance. This study adds to that by stressing the importance of absolute sprint speed as well. As such, coaches should emphasize development of both acceleration (10m) and peak speed (>30m). Drills that include maximal 30-60m sprints as well as other training strategies such as plyometrics and weight training should be used to develop maximal running speed.

Reference:

Mendez-Villanueva A, Buchheit M, Simpson B, Peltola E, Bourdon P (2011) Does on-field sprinting performance in young soccer players depend on how fast they can run or how fast they do run? Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318201c281 (e-published ahead of print).