The role and development of
sprinting speed in soccer
Haugen T, Tønnessen, E, Hisdal J, Seiler S.
The overall objective of this review was to investigate the role
and development of sprinting speed in soccer. Time motion
analyses show that short sprints occur frequently during soccer
games. Straight sprinting is the most frequent action prior to
goals, both for the scoring and assisting player. Straight line
sprinting velocity (both acceleration and maximal sprinting
speed), certain agility skills and repeated sprint ability are
shown to distinguish groups from different performance levels.
Professional players have become faster over time, indicating
that sprinting skills are becoming more and more important in
modern soccer. In research literature, the majority of soccer
related training interventions have provided positive effects on
sprinting capabilities, leading to the assumption that all kinds of
training can be performed with success. However, most
successful intervention studies are time consuming and
challenging to incorporate into the overall soccer training
program. Even though the principle of specificity is clearly
present, several questions remain regarding the optimal training
methods within the larger context of the team sport setting.
Considering time-efficiency effects, soccer players may benefit
more by performing sprint training regimes similar to the
progression model used in strength training and by world
leading athletics practitioners, compared to the majority of
guidelines that traditionally have been presented in research
Performance in soccer depends upon a variety of individual
skills and the interaction among different players within the
team. Technical and tactical skills are considered to be
predominant factors, but physical capabilities must also be well
developed in order to become a successful player. During the
last decade, the focus in soccer-related research literature has
shifted from aerobic to anaerobic demands. Recent studies
suggest that elite or professional players have become faster
over time, while aerobic capacity has plateaued or decreased
While the physiology of soccer has been well
explored, several aspects regarding the role and development of
sprinting speed remain unclear. The aim of this review is three
fold: 1) to synthesize the research that has been undertaken so
far regarding the role and development of sprinting speed in
professional soccer, 2) identify methodological limitations and
concerns associated with these investigations, and 3) outline
specific training recommendations. Hopefully, this review can
contribute to improve best practice regarding sprint
conditioning of soccer players.
The databases of PubMed and SPORTDiscus were used to
search for literature. For scientific studies, only peer-reviewed
articles written in English were included. The search was
conducted in two levels; type of sport and type of athlete.
Regarding the first level, the terms “soccer” and “football”
were used. In order to narrow the search, studies including the
terms “American football”, “Australian football”, “Australian
Rules football”, “Gaelic football”, “rugby” and “futsal” were
excluded. Secondly, to ensure that the involved players were of
a certain playing standard, the search was restricted to > 16 yr
athletes categorized as “elite”, “professional”, “high level”,
“top class”, “first division”, “upper division”, “top level”, “high
class”, “high standard” or “national team”. Only the studies
who investigated the role or development of sprinting skills in
soccer were included. In addition, the reference lists and
citations (Google Scholar) of the identified studies were
explored in order to detect further relevant papers. To ensure
updated sprinting demands, test results reported before the year
2000 were excluded. In order to restrict the total number of
references, only the most recent studies were referred when
multiple investigations reported identical findings.
Sprinting demands during match play
A large number of soccer players from the best European
soccer leagues have been analyzed according to motion during
match play. Data are commonly generated by either
semiautomatic video analysis systems or global positioning
systems (GPS). The analyses show that both male and female
outfield soccer players cover 9-12 km during a match.
this, 8-12 % is high intensity running or sprinting.
midfielders and external defenders perform more high intensity
running and sprinting compared to the other playing positions.
Reported peak sprint velocity values among soccer players
are 31-32 km
Number of sprints in the range 17-81 per
game for each player has been reported,
duration is between 2 and 4 s, and the vast majority of sprint
displacements are shorter than 20m.
The varying estimates
of sprints reported is likely due to varying intensity
classifications, as different running velocities (18-30 km
have been used to distinguish sprint from high speed running. It
is important to note that running speed in the range 20-22
is equivalent to the mean velocity in male elite long
distance running, and mediocre sprinters run faster than 35
. Therefore, definitions based upon absolute velocity are
methodologically problematic in terms of validity and
reliability, in addition to limiting comparisons across studies.
Furthermore, absolute speed values exclude short accelerations
from analysis. Players perform 8 times as many accelerations as
reported sprints per match, and the vast majority of these
accelerations do not cross the high-intensity running
Thus, high intensity running and sprinting
undertaken may be underestimated.
that capture accelerations would markedly strengthen game
To date, no full game analyses have quantified the movement
patterns of intense actions across playing level or positions in
terms of sharp turns, rotations, change of direction, etc. with
and without the ball. However, Faude et al. have used visual
inspection to analyze videos of 360 goals in the first German
They reported that the scoring player
performed straight sprints prior to 45 % of all analyzed goals,
mostly without an opponent and without the ball. Frequencies
for jumps and change-in-direction sprints were 16 and 6 %,
respectively. Straight sprinting was also the most frequent
action for the assisting player, mostly conducted with the ball.
Sprinting characteristics of soccer players
Straight line sprinting skills
In research literature, straight line sprinting is commonly
categorized as acceleration, maximal running velocity and
deceleration. Since game analyses have shown that more than
90 % of all sprints in matches are shorter than 20 m,
acceleration capabilities are obviously important for soccer
players in this context.
However, the importance of peak
velocity increases when sprints are initiated from a jogging or
non-stationary condition. Practically all soccer related studies
have used testing distances in the range 5-40 m. Since sprint
performance differences that separate the excellent from the
average are relatively small on an absolute scale, and the
effects of training interventions are even smaller, valid and
reliable timing and test procedures are critical. Haugen et al.
demonstrated that the starting method and timing system used
can combine to generate differences in “sprint time” up to 0.7
Thus, the method of sprint timing used can result in greater
differences in sprint time than several years of a conditioning
training program. Time differences can be explained by
inclusion or exclusion of reaction time, center of gravity
placement at time triggering and horizontal center of gravity
velocity at time triggering.
Furthermore, footwear, running
surface, wind speed and altitude can generate further time
differences over short sprints.
A review of published
studies monitoring speed performance reveals considerable
variation and/or insufficient information regarding timing
methods, hardware manufacturers, testing procedures and
method of reporting (i.e. best sprint vs. mean sprint time of
several trials). It is therefore important to describe the
methodological sprint test approach as detailed as possible.
Several studies have concluded that mean sprinting velocity
(both acceleration and maximum sprint capacity) distinguishes
soccer players from different standards of play.
comparisons across studies based on available correction
factors for time initiating/starting procedures,
footwear and running surface,
indicate that professional
players from the best European soccer leagues sprint slightly
faster than professional soccer players from lower ranked
We calculate that the fastest soccer players
are ~ 0.6 s slower than the world`s fastest sprinters over 40
However, individual test results from recent studies have
shown that the very fastest male soccer players may achieve
40-m sprint times on par with 60-m sprint finalists from
national athletics championships.
In practical terms, individual differences in sprinting skills are
even more critical than mean differences among groups of
players. Database material from the Norwegian Olympic
Training Center, including 40-m sprint tests of 628 male and
165 female elite players between 1995 and 2010,
percentile difference is 0.13 and 0.16 s over 20 m
sprint for male and female players, respectively (Table 1).
Based on average velocity over the distance, the fastest quartile
is at least 1 m ahead of the slowest quartile over 20 m.
Similarly, the 90
percentile difference over 20 m sprint is
equivalent to more than 2 m. Furthermore, the 10 % fastest
players run 1 m further than the 10 % slowest players for each
second during peak sprinting. According to Hopkins et al., the
smallest worthwhile performance enhancement/change in team
sport is 0.2 of the between-subject standard deviation.
on the present database material, this corresponds to ~0.02 s
over 20-m sprint, which is quite similar to typical variation
associated with sprint testing (CV 1-1.5 %).
settings, a 30-50 cm difference (~0.04-0.06 s over 20m) is
probably enough in order to be decisive in one-on-one duels by
having body/shoulder in front of the opposing player. Thus, the
ability to either create such gaps as an attacker or close those
gaps as a defender can be fundamental to success in elite level
soccer. The chance of dribbling an opponent out of position, or
successfully defending an attack, increases with greater
acceleration and sprinting ability.
**** Table 1 about here ****
While sprint velocity for males peaks in the age range 20-28 yr,
with small but significant decreases in velocity thereafter,
female soccer players struggle to improve their sprinting skills
after their teens.
Increased non-lean body mass might
contribute to the failure of continued training to result in
improved sprint velocity and power performance among female
The majority of sprint test results shows that forwards are faster
than defenders, midfielders and goalkeepers, respectively.
Similar relationships are observed among youths, suggesting
selection processes in early junior talent development as a
possible explanation for the rank of speed pattern among
However, sprinting ability can also be seen
in relationship to the physical demands of the different
positions on the field. Forwards and defenders are perhaps the
fastest players because they are involved in most sprint duels
during match play.
Players in different positions should
therefore prioritize different physical conditioning regimes in
order to solve positional dependent tasks during play.
During the last decade, several authors have emphasized the
importance of agility skills in soccer. Agility was originally
defined by Clarke as “speed in changing body positions or in
More recently, Sheppard & Young
defined agility as “a rapid whole-body movement with change
of velocity or direction in response to a stimulus,” based on the
conception that agility has relationships with both physical and
The vast majority of agility tests in
soccer are designed to evaluate the physical qualities of the
players, without cognitive (i.e. choice reaction) challenges. Zig
zag runs, 90-180° turns, shuttle runs, sideways, and backwards
running with maximal intensity are commonly used drills.
Agility patterns may vary as a function of playing role, and
Sporis et al. suggested different tests for different positions.
Published agility tests do not reflect the nature of deceleration
and turning performed during elite soccer matches. In fact, the
vast majority of turning movements are initiated from a
stationary or jogging condition, while change-in-direction
within sprinting movements rarely occur.
Marcovic reported a poor relationship between strength and
power qualities and agility performance.
Little & Williams
and Vescovi et al. concluded that straight sprint, agility and
vertical jump capabilities are independent locomotor skills.
This is demonstrated on the YouTube video of Christiano
Ronaldo racing against the Spanish 100 m champion, Angel
David Rodriguez (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZqEj-
Qyg6U). Ronaldo lost by 0.3 s over 25 m straight sprint, but
won by 0.5 s when running in a zig zag course over the same
Several studies have reported that professionals or elite players
have better agility skills compared to players of lower
However, Rösch et al. found no differences
across a broad range of playing standard.
The literature is
equivocal regarding agility performance across playing
Interestingly, midfielders perform relatively
better in agility tests compared to linear sprint tests. The
literature also suggests that when change-of-direction is
preceded by braking from a nearly full sprint, the agility
difference across position categories shrinks. In classical
mechanics, the kinetic energy of a non-rotating object of mass
m travelling at a speed v is ½ mv
. Thus, faster players with
more body mass must counteract a larger kinetic energy during
sharp turns while sprinting. Since midfielders in general have
lower body mass and lower peak sprinting speed,
reasonable to expect smaller performance differences in certain
agility tests compared to linear sprint tests.
Timing of ground reaction forces, body configuration and
center of gravity placement are crucial biomechanical elements
when changing direction while sprinting. By lowering the
center of gravity while changing direction, the involved lower
extremity muscles can work under more optimal conditions. By
leaning the upper body towards the intended direction during
turns, combined with foot placement in the opposite intended
running direction away from the vertical center of gravity-line
during ground contact, more kinetic energy can be
counteracted. Correct technique during change-in-direction
movements is also important from an injury prevention
Repeated sprint ability
Repeated sprint ability (RSA) is the ability to perform repeated
sprints with brief recovery intervals.
In recent years, this topic
has received increasing attention as a central factor in most
field-based team sports. Numerous field tests have been
developed to evaluate RSA. Sprint distances of 15-40 m x 3-15
repetitions have been used in elite or professional soccer, and
the vast majority of tests have included 15-30 s recovery
periods between sprints (Table 2). Several tests have combined
agility and repeated sprints.
**** Table 2 about here ****
Primarily two measures have been used in order to evaluate
RSA: total time and/or deterioration in performance. Total time
or mean sprint time have been used as performance indices, and
results from RSA tests have been shown to differentiate
professionals from amateur players.
performance, calculated as sprint decrement, has generally been
used to quantify the ability to resist fatigue during such
Fatigue resistance depends upon a wide range of
physiological factors, mostly related to aerobic metabolism,
and athletes with a higher VO
have smaller performance
decrements during repeated sprint exercise.
This is most
likely explained by the linear relationship between PCr
resynthesis and mitochondrial capacity within muscle.
review of the physiological mechanisms related to RSA is
beyond the scope of this review, but this topic is well described
The outcome and usefulness of the repeated sprint tests has
been questioned over the years. Insufficient timing information
and variations in testing protocols complicate comparisons
across studies. Based on the short recovery periods between
each sprint, most RSA test protocols simulate the most
intensive game periods, leading to a possible overrating of the
aerobic demands. Pyne et al. reported that total time in a RSA
test was highly correlated with single sprint performance and
concluded that RSA was more related to short sprint than
In order to detect the “sprint endurance”
component, repeated sprint test protocols with higher total
volume is perhaps required. According to Balsom et al., it is
more difficult to detect detrimental effects with shorts sprints
(15 m) compared to slightly longer sprints (30-40 m).
data derived from American football indicate that extensive
sprint testing/training without prior gradual progression
increases the risk of hamstring injuries.
This is perhaps why
most repeated sprint test protocols are designed with a
relatively small total volume of sprinting.
Training to improve sprint performance
Soccer related intervention studies
In research literature, the majority of interventions involving
soccer players have provided positive effects, leading to the
assumption that all kinds of training can be performed with
success. A plausible explanation is that the majority of studies
have been performed on young players (16-18 yr). Less
experience with physical conditioning provides more potential
for stimulating positive effects. A well-trained professional
soccer player can be considered untrained in terms of sprint
training. When evaluating research literature, it is important to
keep in mind that successful interventions vary in terms of
training time investment, and time consuming interventions
will probably be rejected by team coaches. A great deal of
knowledge can be gathered from non-successful conditioning
programs as well, which so far are underrepresented in research
journals. With these considerations in mind, we have tried to
identify criterions for success in order to improve soccer related
sprinting skills. Future research regarding dosing strategies
should be designed to validate these recommendations.
Principles of sprint training in soccer
Specificity: A review of published sprint intervention studies on
soccer players confirms the principle of specificity. Short sprint
training (sprinting distance ≤ 30 m) improves short sprint
while longer sprints (~ 40 m) improves maximal
Prolonged sprints (≥30 s) have limited effects
on acceleration or peak velocity.
Linear sprint training does
not improve performance in sprints with changes of
Agility training improves the specific agility task
performed during practice.
Repeated sprinting improves
The superiority of resisted or assisted sprint training
compared to normal sprinting has so far not been clearly
Several “less specific” training forms have also been explored
in order to improve sprinting skills of soccer players. Contrast
training (combination of strength, power and sport specific
drills) has provided positive effects on soccer-specific sprint
but twice weekly training sessions do not
seem to be more beneficial than one weekly session.
Plyometric training interventions have so far provided limited
effects on soccer players` sprint performance.
strength training with heavy weights does not consistently
improve sprinting capabilities.
Sedano et al. stated that
improved explosive strength can be transferred to acceleration
capacity, but a certain time is required for the players in order
to transfer these improvements.
Kristensen et al. recommend
normal sprinting over other training forms in order to obtain
short distance sprinting improvement in a short period of
Several authors have reported that a combination of high-
intensive interval training and heavy strength training have
enhanced sprinting performance in soccer players.
interventions are extensive and time consuming, as they include
at least 4 weekly training sessions. Some authors recommend
high-intensive aerobic interval training (80-90 % of VO
addition to repeated sprint in order improve RSA.
However, Ferrari Bravo et al. demonstrated that repeated sprint
training was superior to high-intensity aerobic interval training
in terms of aerobic and soccer specific training adaptations.
Tønnessen et al. showed that elite soccer players were able to
complete repeated sprints with intensity closer to maximum
capacity after repeated sprint training once a week, without
additional high-intensive intervals.
Even though the principle
of specificity is clearly present, sprinting skills in soccer may
be improved in several ways.
Individualization: Unfortunately, most interventions in sport
science are limited to answering typical one-dimensional
questions, more specifically whether certain types of training
are more effective than others. In practice, however, coaches
are concerned with three dimensions; 1) what kind of training
should be performed, 2) by which individuals, 3) at what time
point in the season. Similar to medical consultations, a broad
range of performance factors should be tested and evaluated
before necessary treatment is prescribed. Capacity profiles are
essential in order to diagnose each individual and develop
training interventions that target the major limiting factors. We
were somewhat surprised by the relatively small differences in
physical skills across playing positions in Norwegian
professional soccer, as goalkeepers and midfielders showed
practically identical values for vertical jump performance (~ 2
cm difference) and VO
(only ~ 5 ml difference).
Logistically, individualized training of physical capacity is
demanding to organize in a team sport setting. This is probably
a greater problem in high-level female and youth soccer, where
team staff is smaller compared to male professional teams. In
such cases, most soccer coaches perform similar training for all
outfield players within the team, despite large individual
differences in capacity profiles. However, it is unlikely that
similar training doses lead to similar responses for players
belonging to opposing extremes. Surprisingly, there has been
little research about how individual capacity profiles can be
developed in team sports. The data presented in table 1 can
form a basis for capacity profiles for linear sprinting skills, but
similar profiles should also be developed for agility, RSA and
other soccer related capabilities.
Familiarization, progression and periodization: Sprinting is the
most frequent mechanism associated with hamstring injuries,
and age/previous injuries are the most important risk factors.
About 17 % of all injuries in soccer are hamstring injuries, and
more than 15 % of all hamstring injuries are reported as re-
Players that have not been fully rehabilitated
following sprint-related injury, or who have had such injuries
during the previous weeks, should be particularly cautious.
Many hamstring injuries occur during the short pre-season
period because of the relative deconditioning that occurs in the
Thus, during the initial weeks of a sprint training
program there should be a gradual familiarization, both in terms
of intensity and the number of sprint repetitions. Somewhat
surprisingly, we have not identified progression or
periodization models regarding sprint training in the research
literature. In contrast, a classic linear model of periodization is
well established in strength training research. This is
characterized by high initial training volume and low intensity.
During the training cycle, volume gradually decreases and
This periodization model is similar to
the sprint training philosophy developed by athletic sprint
pioneer coach Carlo Vittori in the mid-1970s.
conditioning for his athletes was initiated with short sprints at
low intensity. As training progressed, the intensity and/or total
volume gradually increased in order to improve alactic
capacity. To the author`s knowledge, Vittori first published the
repeated sprint training-method (at that time termed “speed
endurance training”). He was national team sprint coach and
personal coach to Pietro Mennea, Olympic gold medalist in
1980 and former world record holder for the 200 meter.
Recently, we have performed sprint training interventions with
a similar progression model.
These studies have provided
positive and time-efficient effects on soccer-related sprinting
skills. Further studies are warranted in order to establish
progression and periodization models for sprint development.
Integration of sprint training: According to acknowledged
practitioners in soccer, physical conditioning of players must be
integrated with the remaining soccer-specific training.
important to keep in mind that playing soccer is an important
contribution to the overall fitness level of the players. Sporis et
al. reported that starters developed sprinting skills to a higher
level compared to non-starters.
interventions will not automatically be accepted by the soccer
coaches. It is therefore essential that the small amount of time
available for physical training is used effectively. Hoff et al.
demonstrated how aerobic endurance training can be integrated
into soccer specific training,
and a similar approach should
also be used in order to improve sprinting skills.
Physical coaching expertise: Research has highlighted the
importance of direct supervision in order to obtain optimal
Coaching centers to a larger degree on
continually evaluating and making adjustments to the training
process. In research related intervention studies, such
opportunities are limited due to issues of standardization and
validation. However, sprinting skills are heavily dependent
upon technical elements, increasing the needs of feedback
during practice. Continuous presence of a physical conditioning
expert probably increases the odds for a more successful
outcome in soccer.
Essential loading factors
Intensity: To the authors` knowledge, the vast majority of
soccer studies make no other recommendations than that sprint
velocity should be maximal throughout. However, recent
studies of soccer players and track & field athletes have shown
that 40 m linear sprint performance is significantly reduced
already after 3-4 maximal repetitions.
Thus, the intensity
(calculated as percentage of maximal sprint velocity) should
perhaps be reduced in order to complete a higher number of
repetitions during practice. The lowest effective sprinting
intensity for stimulating adaptation is so far not established in
research literature. Successful sprint coaches have performed
sprint training sessions with an intensity as low as 90 % during
the initial pre-season conditioning.
intervention studies have revealed that most soccer players
through gradual progression are capable of completing at least
twenty 40-m sprint repetitions with intensity >95 %.
randomized controlled trial studies should explore the impact of
different sprinting intensities. In strength training literature,
greater loading/intensity is needed for 1RM improvements as
one progresses from untrained to more advanced levels of
Recoveries: Recovery duration between repetitions and sets is
one of the most important variables in manipulating the training
intensity. Shorter recovery time forces lower intensity per
sprint repetition. The longer the recoveries, the more repetitions
can be completed at a high intensity. Balsom et al. found that
when soccer players ran 15x40 m at maximal intensity,
separated by 30 s recovery, the performance drop-off was 10
%. However, when the same training was performed with either
60 or 120 s recovery, the performance drop-off was reduced to
3 and 2 %, respectively.
To date, no studies have investigated
the effect of recovery duration during sprint training on soccer
related sprinting skills. In strength training research, long-term
studies have shown greater maximal strength improvements
with long (2-3 min) versus short (30-40 s) recovery periods
Sprint training frequency: Recent sprint training regimes
conducted on elite soccer players have shown positive effects
following sprint training as little as once a week.
question remains whether even greater effects would have
occurred with more frequent training sessions. No studies have
so far compared the effects of different sprint training
frequencies. If a greater number of sprint training sessions per
week results in only marginally better training effects, it is
likely that the majority of soccer coaches would choose to
implement only one session per week. This is in order to reduce
the risk of injury, in addition to allowing more time for soccer-
Season time considerations: Dupont et al. reported positive
training effects after repeated sprint training in-season.
studies suggest that the largest effects are seen when sprint
training is conducted in the off-season or early pre-
Soccer specific training contributes to
maintaining RSA gained during pre-season training. Sprinting
ability depends to a large degree on the athlete being well
rested and is therefore difficult to combine with other forms of
training. This is particularly relevant in soccer, which is driven
primarily by aerobic metabolism. Recently, we had to abort an
intervention study performed at the end of pre-season and
season start due to drop-out issues caused by injuries. Future
intervention studies should report the number of injuries
sustained during the intervention period, along-side any
potential training effects, as this is equally important in soccer.
In summary, sprinting ability in soccer is regulated by a
complex interaction of multiple factors. Our understanding of
this interaction is far from complete, a reality that is likely part
of the reason that intuition, experience and tradition carry so
much weight in the training and coaching of elite athletes.
Conditioning programs should be ideally be focused on closing
the gap between the positional demands of play and actual
individual capacity. Several questions remain regarding
optimization of training methods, and it is reasonable to believe
that there is a gap between science and best practice regarding
sprint development of soccer players. We believe that future
studies regarding this topic should be based upon progression
models and program design recommendations from scientific
strength training literature, as this research field is much more
developed per se.
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Table 1: Percentiles (PCTL) of split times, peak velocity (PV)
and countermovement jump (CMJ) for male professionals and
female elite soccer players
Table 2: Repeated sprint field test protocols [sets x (repetitions
x distance)] used on elite or professional soccer players >16 yrs
ranged according to total sprinting distance (TSD) during the
test. Recovery is reported as time between each sprint.
Table 1. Percentiles (PCTL) of split times, peak velocity (PV) and countermovement
jump (CMJ) for male professionals and female elite soccer players.
Males (n=628/411 for sprint/CMJ)
Females (n=165/165 for sprint/CMJ)
Note: For the sprint tests, a floor pod placed on the start line was used for time initiation.
Table 2: Repeated sprint field test protocols [sets x (repetitions x distance)] used on
elite or professional soccer players >16 yrs ranged according to total sprinting
distance (TSD) during the test. Recovery is reported as time between each sprint.
Krustrup et al.
Aziz et al.
Aziz et al.
Mujika et al.
Dellall et al.
Dupont et al.
Chaouachi et al.
Meckel et al.
Meckel et al.
Impellizzeri et al.
Bangsbo et al.
Wong et al.
Tønnessen et al.
Dupont et al.
Little & Williams
Little & Williams