Updated: Jun 17, 2022
Conor Shannon BSc Sport and Exercise Science
No more than kicking a point, or executing a solo, sprinting is a skill. Speed is a specific quality that needs to be optimally trained in order to improve players’ ability to sprint fast and change direction effectively. The benefits of sprinting extend well beyond being ‘fast’. Previous research has indicated that sprinting reduces hamstring injury risk (Duhig et al. 2016; Malone et al. 2018), while from a performance perspective, your quickest players are typically your best (Mooney et al. 2021), and finally, sprinting was found to be the most frequent action prior to goals being scored in professional football (Faude et al. 2012).
Speed is the ability to get from A to B as fast as possible. Acceleration is the ability to go from a standing start or low intensity of movement and increase your speed to near maximal over short distances, such as 5 and 10 metres, and is one of the most important qualities to develop for GAA players. Top-end speed or ‘maximum velocity’, is the highest or greatest speed that you can achieve and occurs generally after 25 to 30 metres of sprinting. Change of direction is a rapid whole-body movement with a pre-planned change of velocity or direction. Agility is a rapid whole-body movement with change of velocity or direction in response to a stimulus, and therefore, requires a cognitive component, such as visual scanning or decision making.
If we look at Gaelic football, it is an invasion field sport, recognised as being of high intensity in nature, with frequent bouts of high-speed running interspersed with accelerations (Malone et al. 2017). Gaelic football requires a variety of skills to be successfully executed at high speed (Reilly et al. 2015; Ryan et al. 2017). Previous research has been extensively conducted on elite Gaelic football; acceleration profiles, running performance and match-play demands have been established and identified (Malone et al. 2016; Ryan et al. 2017).
In order to perform optimally come match day, we need to have our players adequately prepared to meet the physical demands of the game. Gaelic football is an amateur sport, so time is at a premium; we need to use time-efficient methods to get our players up to scratch. One of these methods is through small-sided games (SSGs). McGahan et al. (2018) conducted a novel study investigating the positional running performance of elite Gaelic football match-play, and the efficacy of traditional training activities conventionally used to prepare players for competition. Interestingly, and not surprisingly, the running demands of traditional, or ‘drills-based training’, were found to be lower across all GPS variables when compared with match-play, SSGs and conditioning-based training, in agreement with previously conducted research in professional rugby league (Gabbett et al. 2012). Moreover, McGahan et al. (2018) found a strong relationship between the running demands of match-play, and the running performance during SSGs, suggesting that a Games Based Approach (GBA) is efficacious for preparing players for the physical demands of match-play.
While the benefits of SSG’s has been outlined, in order to expose our players to a speed stimulus, this needs to be done in isolation. SSG’s are typically multi-directional in nature, and because of this, we aren’t giving our players an opportunity to achieve their maximal velocity. Previous research has indicated that the game alone is not enough for optimal speed development. Furthermore, research by Rumpf et al. (2016) concluded that to improve sprint performance, distance-specific sprint training was found to be most beneficial. Typically, in Gaelic football, a sprint is no longer than 30-40m, so getting our players quicker over this distance needs to be a priority, whilst also working on their ability to accelerate over small distances in order to beat their opponent to a ball.
Theoretically, if we increase a player’s maximal sprint speed, their sub-maximal running performance should become more efficient. If we can increase a player’s maximal speed threshold, we are fine tuning their engine, and enhancing their ability to repeatedly perform high intensity actions during the game. An increase in maximal velocity results in an increase in sub-maximal capacity (the running performed most often during a game) and a decrease in energy expenditure at sub-maximal intensities, therefore, one could argue, your players have gotten ‘fitter’. Therefore, instead of running laps, or completing 5Km runs, how about spending some time on getting our players quicker; lets fine tune the engine for a period, instead of just trying to build it!
The best time to include speed training is after a thorough warm-up. The typical GAA approach is to load our players with a high volume of ‘sprints’ at the end of a session in the week leading up to championship, under the pretence that we’re ‘sharpening them up for the weekend’. This is not optimal. Too often players complete this work at the end of a session when they are fatigued, they don’t sprint at maximum intensity and we don’t take enough rest between each sprint. When working on speed, players need to be fresh, otherwise we’re just adding unnecessary load in the form of additional conditioning. Effective sprint training involves the completion of sprints, change of direction and agility training at maximum 100% intensity. Importantly, players need full recovery between each sprint and/ or agility drill. As a rule of thumb, for every 10m that a player sprints, they should be afforded 1-minute recovery. If these guidelines are not followed, it is unlikely that speed gains will be evident with our players.
SSG’s are ideal from an agility and change of direction perspective, as they present players with scenarios where they need to exhibit effective change of direction skill, and cognitive capacity, to evade their opponent. Change of direction work can also be micro-dosed in the warm-up, to ensure that our players are moving optimally, and not exhibiting movement patterns that may predispose them to injury. However, in order to get that maximal velocity, linear speed stimulus, we need to give our players a chance to sprint in isolation, at maximal intent, without having to worry about the presence of an opponent or a football.
Finally, in addition to on-field sprint training, our players can improve their speed qualities through the implementation of resistance training. Previous research has indicated that strength training,
power training, eccentric training, through the use of the Nordic curl
(Bourne et al. 2017) and plyometric training are effective methods to complement
on field sprint training, resulting in increased reactive strength
and force production qualities. High levels of lower-limb muscular strength have
been associated with superior jumping, sprinting and change of direction performance
in field-sport athletes (Chaouachi et al. 2009; Seitz et al. 2014; Wang et al. 2016),
in addition to reducing injury risk (Suchomel et al. 2016).
There are no speed limits on the road to success.
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