In the game of soccer, fitness coaches may struggle with finding an appropriate way to develop the speed qualities of their players during the season. It may be tempting to not address speed development while practice loads, fitness work, and strength training takes priority. The assumption may be that scrimmage and match play will take care of the maintenance of high-speed running. However, this is a shortsighted approach. The qualities that are important for sprinting fast and efficiently are both capacity and skill based. Because of this, capacities need to be maintained and improved and skill needs to be reinforced in a structured manner. Accomplishing this without overloading an athlete during their competition period can certainly be a daunting task, but there are strategies that can have great benefit with little cost.
Micro dosing is a training method that involves applying relatively frequent, small doses of load that have a cumulative or compounding effect. In other words, small doses applied with consistency add up to a large amount of practice over time. Elite soccer athletes are getting faster and faster on average, so the accumulation of little bits of sprint training may give the competitive advantage for success when others are neglecting it. Let’s first look at why speed development is important for these athletes.
Many consider agility or change of direction ability to be the most important quality in soccer, but straight sprints are the most common type of movement that happen directly before a score, both by the scorer and the player assisting (2). Sprint efforts can happen as often as every 2.5 minutes on average, reaching speeds up to and exceeding 30km/h (5). Most of these bursts last less than 5 seconds, but some analyses attribute as many as 10% of the sprints during a match to long efforts of 5 seconds or more (1). Positionally, these numbers will vary, but we can be sure that field players will reach a velocity fast enough to be considered a sprint multiple times during a match.
Hamstring injuries are one of the most common ailments in soccer athletes, and the most common occurrence of this injury is during high speed running or sprinting. This information should drive fitness coaches to better prepare their athletes for sprint efforts instead of shying away from them in-season. Because of the highly skilled nature of efficient sprinting, this is not an area that can effectively be addressed indirectly. We know that intermuscular coordination, intramuscular recruitment patterns, and neuromuscular control of the torso (dynamic posture), are factors in both sprinting efficiency and injury incidence (3,4). In other words, the neuromuscular factors that promote efficient sprinting are also associated with lower injury risk of the hamstrings. Sprinting is essentially a skill performed with very high intensity, and evidence is suggesting that practicing the skill is the most effective way of both improving it and decreasing associated risks.
While most clubs will expose their athletes to some amount of full-field scrimmage, most of the training volume in a week often comes from short effort technical and tactical drills and small-sided games. This means that exposure to sprint efforts may be completely missed during training if it is not specifically addressed. In general, athletes can benefit from consistent sprint training through improved mechanics and output (speed), decreased risk of hamstring injury during sprinting, and maintenance of familiarity with the intensity of maximal velocity.
A proper speed session should follow guidelines that result in high quality efforts with low levels of fatigue, and performed with maximal intent. This means relatively long rest periods (upward of 1 minute per 10 meters) with a balanced mix of short duration and long duration efforts. Even though most sprints last less than 5 seconds, this dedicated time may be an appropriate context to address the longer sprints that can be neglected throughout the training week.
The biggest challenge fitness coaches will face is how to fit sprint training into an already heavy training load. The key is effective communication with head coaches in planning the training week. As was mentioned earlier, micro dosing speed sessions may be the best way to be productive without disrupting a coach’s weekly plan. Adding 4 to 5 full effort 20-meter sprint repetitions to the end of a warm up twice per week will have minimal effect on the timing of a training session or the athlete’s overall fatigue level, but will add up over the course of the season to hundreds of repetitions of acceleration practice. If more time is available during a specific session, 8-10 sprint repetitions totaling 200-250 meters once a week can provide adequate stimulus. For coaches who like to have harder training days early in the week, a moderate-volume speed training session may fit well later in the week to maintain some intensity while training loads drop leading up to a match. Ideally, the speed-training volume is accounted for when planning a weekly training load, meaning it is integrated within, not added to, the overall load. When possible, maintaining frequency of small doses of speed development allows for low unobtrusive volumes to be present during training, and also may be most effective for motor learning purposes.
Methods for speed development sessions may vary within the confines of quality and quantity guidelines to achieve a desired outcome. These may include short accelerations, long accelerations, resisted accelerations, and non-linear sprinting.
Short accelerations will include sprints up to around 20 meters. This type of effort aims to develop acceleration mechanics, short-burst speed, and low-end power. While short accelerations can be efficient in that they are quick and require relatively little rest between, they are also the most likely type of sprint effort to occur in a constrained environment such as drills or short-sided games. For this reason, we should not rely on short accelerations too heavily during speed development sessions.
Long accelerations are those occurring between about 20-40 meters. The goal here is to allow the strides to open up a bit, achieve a more upright sprinting posture, and reach speeds at or nearing maximal velocity. This distance, in my opinion, can make up the bulk of the volume in the speed development program because it gives an opportunity to work on both acceleration and maximal velocity sprint mechanics while keeping duration under 5 seconds where 90% of sprints occur in a match.
Sprints of over 40 meters need not be neglected, but are best used sparingly due to the challenge they present to athletes in maintaining good sprint posture while beginning to decelerate. My observation has been that this is where athletes begin to over-stride in attempt to hang on to their speed. This change in mechanics is a quick way to increase risk of a hamstring injury. For the same reason, however, it may be beneficial to practice longer sprints in a controlled environment when the context is appropriate.
Inserting variation into speed development for the soccer athlete may take the form of multi-starts or non-linear running patterns. Multi-starts are a great way to add a challenge to the sprint without adding much extra load. They can include low level hops, shuffles, or ladder drills that transition immediately into acceleration. Here, the athlete performs a movement that is very dissimilar to sprinting, then is required to quickly and efficiently get their body in position for powerful acceleration. Non-linear sprint patterns might include changes of direction, weave running, or circle patterns. These drills may actually slightly decrease the intensity of the sprint due to inherently slower running speeds. Again, in the correct context, non-linear sprinting may benefit the soccer athlete, who is subject to a changing environment.
When training or match loads are high, it may be tempting to eliminate speed development. For the purpose of maintaining consistency, it may be better to modify sprints toward something of lower intensity like resisted sprints. Using a harness, you can replicate acceleration mechanics and get in quality contacts at much lower speeds. Remember that sprint ability is not only based on capacities that need developed, but is also a skill that needs practiced. Lowering the speed by adding resistance allows for this practice while decreasing ground reaction forces and overall intensity.
With so many options for speed development, it may seem difficult to decide which is appropriate in what context. In general, coaches should simply aim to provide well-rounded, high-quality speed sessions with consistency. When consistency is not possible, it may be best to revert back to short accelerations or resisted sprints, which can be a safer, lower speed stepping-stone back into some longer accelerations. The following reminders are helpful in staying on track throughout the season.
- Keep intensity high. It shouldn’t be fitness work. Sprint efforts need to be of maximal intent and minimal fatigue.
- Keep volume low enough to not effect the quality of the proceeding training session. Remember that maintaining frequency allows for lower volumes per session.
- Progression may come from manipulating volume, distance, start position, etc. or by incorporating competition to ramp up intensity.
- Coordinate volume with the head coach. The goal is to integrate speed development into the training plan, not add extra load.
- Andrzejewski, Marcin, et al. “Analysis of Sprinting Activities of Professional Soccer Players.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 27, no. 8, 2013, pp. 2134–2140., doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e318279423e.
- Faude, Oliver, et al. “Straight Sprinting Is the Most Frequent Action in Goal Situations in Professional Football.” Journal of Sports Sciences, vol. 30, no. 7, 2012, pp. 625–631., doi:10.1080/02640414.2012.665940.
- Schuermans, Joke, et al. “Proximal Neuromuscular Control Protects Against Hamstring Injuries in Male Soccer Players: A Prospective Study With Electromyography Time-Series Analysis During Maximal Sprinting.” The American Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 45, no. 6, 2017, pp. 1315–1325., doi:10.1177/0363546516687750.
- Schuermans, Joke, et al. “Susceptibility to Hamstring Injuries in Soccer.” The American Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 44, no. 5, 2016, pp. 1276–1285., doi:10.1177/0363546515626538.
- Vescovi, Jason D. “Sprint Profile of Professional Female Soccer Players during Competitive Matches: Female Athletes in Motion (FAiM) Study.” Journal of Sports Sciences, vol. 30, no. 12, 2012, pp. 1259–1265., doi:10.1080/02640414.2012.701760.
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