Speed: The Difference Between Pro & Semi-Pro Players
Research reveals that footballers spend more time walking and jogging in match-play than in high-speed, high-intensity manoeuvres, but it’s recognised that these high-speed actions are major contributors to match success.
Being able to accelerate quickly to outpace or outmanoeuvre an opponent holds the key to gaining and maintaining possession of the ball, but which physical qualities hold the key to optimising your acceleration speed?
Studies show that elite players cover distances of between 9km and 14km in a 90-minute match, and only 8-12% of the total distance will include high-speed or high-intensity actions.
These bursts of speed or activity will take place every 70 seconds on average and notable differences in sprint speed between elite and sub-elite players have been found.
In linear (straight line) sprints of 5 metres, elite players were found to be 0.03 seconds faster than sub-elite players, and 0.12 seconds faster over 15 metres.
In a 40-metre sprint test incorporating pre-planned turns and changes of direction, the difference between elite and sub-elite players was found to be 1.75 seconds.
You can now see on paper how small the gap between elite and sub-elite players really is in terms of speed - which is often considered the most valuable asset a player can possess.
But despite being small, differences like that all over the pitch add up to appear significant to coaches and scouts in terms of your ability to impact the game.
Understanding which physical qualities have the biggest influence on your linear and multidirectional acceleration speed will help to ensure that your training is designed to optimise your performance on the pitch.
*Key point: You don't know what you don't know. Professional players at the top clubs have all of their training designed around sciencific principles for them. They don't need to spend years figuring it out for themselves, they focus 100% on performing and trust the professionals to show them what they must do to keep improving. That's likely been the way for them since the age of 10. This is predominately why they're able to stay at that level and semi-pro players generally find it difficult to make the step up. With every single optimised session they complete, the gap between you and them is getting wider.
The Latest Football Specific Research
A group of 26 professional footballers (all players in English Premier League senior teams throughout the 2015/2016 season), were chosen as subjects in a study aimed at pinpointing which commonly used football fitness assessments could provide a means of predicting linear and multidirectional speed performance.
The assessments included:
- IMTP (isometric midthigh pull) tests
- CMJ (countermovement jump) testing
- DJ (drop jump) testing
- Linear acceleration testing
- Multi-directional acceleration testing
The following tests were taken in the same order by each player – CMJs (two-legged then one-legged), DJs (two-legged then one-legged), IMTP, linear acceleration (20 metres in a straight line from a standing start with 5 and 10-metre split times), and then multi-directional acceleration (pre-planned turns then reactive changes of direction).
IMTP or Isometric Midthigh Pull:
Used as a measure of maximal strength, this test was carried out with players standing on a portable force platform positioned centrally on the floor under a power rack bar.
Assuming a body position similar to performing the second pull of a power clean (knees bent, trunk flat, and shoulders in line with the bar), each player was instructed to pull as hard and as fast as possible for approximately 5 seconds.
CMJ or Countermovement Jump Testing:
Using a portable force platform, bilateral (two-legged) and unilateral (one-legged) CMJs were performed separately. Keeping hands on hips, the players were instructed to jump as high as possible after dropping to an agreed countermovement or pre-stretch depth by bending their knees. It’s worth noting that the use of arms in CMJs can improve performance by as much as 10%.
DJs or Drop Jumps:
DJs are commonly used as a measure of leg power and reactive strength. Using a 40cm plyometric box for bilateral jumps and a 20cm plyometric box for unilateral jumps, RSI (reactive strength index) was measured on a portable force platform.
Players were instructed to step off the box, land, and then jump as high as possible before landing on the force platform. Arm swing was minimised by keeping hands on hips during the jump, and players were encouraged to minimise ground contact time and maximise jump height.
Linear Acceleration Testing:
From a stationary start in a 2-point crouched position, players were timed over a straight-line distance of 20 metres, with split times recorded at 5 and 10 metres. Each player was encouraged to run as fast as possible for the entire 20 metres by aiming for a cone 2 metres beyond the finish-line.
Multi-directional Acceleration Testing:
A Y-shaped agility test was used to assess multi-directional acceleration. From a standing start, players accelerated into a straight sprint of 7.5 metres before cutting left or right to sprint a further 7.5 metres to the finish-line.
Planned turns, where the players knew in advance which direction to run in, were followed by reactive turns in which the players had to respond to a light once the test was in progress.
- The peak power output measurement recorded in the bilateral CMJ test proved to be the only marker to predict a player’s speed performance over 5, 10, and 20-metre distances.
- The peak force measurement recorded in the IMTP test significantly predicted 20-metre sprint speed performance, but only in a straight line.
- None of the assessment tests (IMTP, CMJ, or DJ) predicted multi-directional speed performances.
- The measures recorded in the DJ test were deemed non-significant in terms of predicting speed performance.
Applying the Findings to Your Training
The findings indicate that CMJ and IMTP testing provides the best means of predicting your linear sprint speed, suggesting that making improvements in these tests through appropriate training could lead to improvements in your acceleration speed on the pitch.
As it’s known that differences in acceleration speed exist between elite and sub-elite football players, the IMTP assessment findings suggest that maximal strength development could lead to potential improvements in your football performance.
However, none of the above assessments (IMTP, CMJ, DJ) proved useful in terms of predicting multi-directional sprint speeds.
Other studies have noted that while sprint speeds may be similar in elite and non-elite athletes when direction changes are pre-planned, switching to reactional changes leads to performance levels dropping.
This suggests that cognitive qualities rather than physical qualities may prove to be better predictors of reactional change of direction speeds (and that further research is needed).
The Bottom Line
The findings suggest that IMTP testing and CMJ tests are the best predictors of acceleration speed in elite footballers.
Obviously you may not have access to the equipment for these tests, but what's important is understanding the training that needs to be done throughout your career in order to keep progressing your straight line and multi-directional speed.
The conclusion from the researchers was that training for maximal strength and lower body power has the potential to improve linear sprint performance, and lead to greater results in key tests used at professional clubs...such as the IMTP and CMJ tests.
However multi-directional acceleration speed improvements may come down to cognitive rather than physical qualities.
We're talking about the tiny differences between already highly conditioned players...understanding details such as this can enable you to break away from the rest of the pack.
If you're not currently at pro level, optimising your training will help you make the step up to that level - so that when the oppportunity comes you're ready to take it with both hands and set yourself on the pathway to becoming a top, top level pro.
Jonathan, N, Russell, M, Shearer, D, Cook, CJ, and Kilduff, LP. Predictors of linear and multidirectional acceleration in elite soccer players. J Strength Cond Res 33(2): 514–522, 2019