Improving speed across football codes

Sprinting is an important action in many sports. In soccer, for example, research has demonstrated that, whilst the total distance covered by a player in an English Premier League match has stayed reasonably consistent over time, the number of high intensity efforts has increased by 50%, with the total distance of high intensity running having increased by 30%. Studies from other sports classed as “football” (AFL, Rugby League and Union, American Football, Gaelic Football, etc.) demonstrate similar trends. As such, we can be confident that possessing high levels of sprint speed, and the ability to maintain this speed under fatigue, is an important aspect of success in these sports. The question for coaches, however, is how do we improve speed in our players?

Finding the secret of speed

This was the subject of a recent systematic review and meta-analysis published in the leading journal Sports Medicine. In this paper, the authors searched various academic databases for studies examining sprint training across the plethora of sports that make up the football codes. Sixty studies met the inclusion criteria set by the researchers, comprised of a total of 1500 football code athletes. The majority (56) of the studies were conducted only in male athletes; this is an important caveat to keep in mind for those working with female athletes, and is also indicative of the overall lack of sports science research that is conducted on females—a massive gap in the field. The players in the studies came from a variety of different standards, ranging from sub-elite to elite, and the duration of the training interventions examined in the individual studies was an average of seven and a half weeks (range 3 – 22 weeks), comprised of between 6 and 32 individual sprint training sessions.

The authors explored the effects of different training interventions, which they defined as:

  • Sport only: as the name suggests, these studies utilised players training in the sport they competed in; for example simulated matches.
  • Primary methods: this involved training that simulated the sprint movement pattern, including sprinting, sprint drills, and exercises focused on stride length and stride frequency.
  • Secondary methods: this involved the application of overload to sprint training, either by increasing or reducing the movement speed, for example through the application of sleds or assisted sprinting.
  • Tertiary methods: this group of training intervention was quite broad, but included common non-sprinting training methods often used to enhance sprint performance, such as strength training, power training, and plyometrics.
  • Combined methods: again, as the name suggests, training interventions in this group utilized both specific sprint training (either primary or secondary methods) in combination with tertiary methods.

So which sprint training methods we most effective? To test this, the authors combined the results of all eligible studies into a meta-analysis. When it comes to improving sprint speed over 0-30m, combined methods, secondary methods, and tertiary methods all significantly improved sprint speed, with the largest differences coming from the secondary methods group. Surprisingly, primary methods did not significantly improve sprint performance over 0-30m; in part, this was due to the wide range of results of the studies—some suggested these methods were effective, some didn’t. This uncertainty meant that the outcome was not significant. Perhaps unsurprisingly, sport only training did not enhance sprint speed over the first 30m. For longer sprint distances (classed in this study as distances of 0 to >30m), only combined and tertiary methods significantly improved sprint performance; when looking at the maximum velocity of athletes, only tertiary methods significantly improved performance.

Developing a speed program for football

So what does this all mean in practice? What should a football speed program focus on? Any type of training (primary, secondary, tertiary, or combined) in addition to sport-only training improved sprint training to a greater extent than sport-only training alone. So, the first key take-home—which I hope is obvious—is that sport-only training is an insufficient training stimulus to drive improvements in sprint ability in games players.

Secondly, most training interventions appeared to have some positive effect on sprinting performance, which suggests that a variety of methods can be useful in enhancing sprint performance. Interestingly, additional sprint training—in the form of sprinting itself—was the least effective training intervention. This is surprising, but, as the authors point out, football players sprint a lot in training and matches, so additional sprints might not be as effective as expected. To increase the effectiveness of sprint only training in football players, the authors recommend potentially:

  • Increasing the distance of repetitions, targeting maximum velocity as opposed to acceleration
  • Increasing the recovery time, to allow for maximal efforts (submaximal efforts may be blunting the expected improvements from sprint training)
  • When time is limited, focusing on sprinting as opposed to sprint drills, a type of primary methods that may have limited transfer to performance.

In footballers, two of the main limiters of sprint performance are likely to be the ability to produce large forces against the ground in a short period of time, and being mechanically efficient. Training interventions that target these weaknesses should, therefore, be useful in enhancing sprint speed—as found in this study in the form of secondary and tertiary interventions. Secondary training methods (e.g., resisted and assisted sprinting) appear to influence sprint times over 0-30m and 0 to >30m as opposed to maximum velocity, suggest that the adaptations they drive in footballers are driven by changes in acceleration. This might be because resisted and assisted sprinting influence horizontal force production, whilst maximum velocity sprinting appears to be largely driven by vertical force production. This is why tertiary training methods are potentially effective; exercises such as plyometrics and Olympic Lifting do influence the development of maximum velocity sprinting in team sport athletes.

Final thoughts

This is useful information for coaches of football code athletes, further demonstrating the need to match training type with target outcomes. Having an understanding of what you want to improve (and why)—in this case, maximum velocity or acceleration—allows you to select the appropriate training methodology. As always, we’re reminded by research of the need to be flexible in approach, and to avoid becoming increasingly wedded to one philosophy, as well as the importance of the stimulus, as identified by the lack of performance improvement from primary training methods. Keeping this in mind should better assist us in improving the speed of any football-code athletes we work with.