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Original Research

Sprinting Patterns of National Rugby League Competition

Gabbett, Tim J

Author Information
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: January 2012 - Volume 26 - Issue 1 - p 121-130
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31821e4c60
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Abstract

Introduction

Several studies have assessed the sprinting demands of team sport competition, with the majority using video-tracking technology (9,14,19,22). In a review of team sport studies investigating sprinting and repeated-sprint activity, Spencer et al. (21) reported that the mean distance and duration of sprints was between 10 and 20 m and 2 and 3 seconds, respectively. It has also been shown that during competition, players may achieve speeds in excess of 90% of maximal velocity, and depending on playing position, commence sprints from a variety of starting speeds (9). These findings demonstrate the importance of training acceleration and maximal velocity qualities in team sport players and that sprinting efforts should be performed from a variety of starting speeds to replicate the sprinting patterns of competition (9).

Although video-based time-motion analyses have provided important information on the sprinting patterns of team sport competition, the introduction of global positioning satellite (GPS) technology has allowed sport scientists and conditioning coaches to gain specific information on the distances covered in low- and high-intensity activities and, importantly, the sprinting velocities achieved by these athletes during training and competition. Despite the emergence of GPS into the team sport environment, few studies have documented the use of this technology to study the physiological demands and sprinting patterns of team sport athletes (8,13). Gabbett (13) investigated the sprinting demands of elite female field hockey players and reported a greater number of high-velocity sprint efforts in midfielders (58 ± 16) than in defenders (43 ± 14) and a greater number of high acceleration sprint efforts in midfielders (44 ± 12) than in both strikers (38 ± 6) and in defenders (36 ± 10). Cunniffe et al. (8) used GPS technology to study the sprinting demands of rugby union players. A limitation of this study was that only 2 players were assessed (1 forward and 1 back). Although differences were found between the forward and back players for the number of sprints performed (back = 34 vs. forward = 19), and the average distance of these sprints (back = 15.3 m vs. forward = 17.3 m), the small sample used by these authors limits the interpretations and practical applications of the data.

The importance of repeated-sprint activity to team sport performance has also been identified (14,22). In a study of international soccer competition, it was shown that players performed on average 4.8 repeated-sprint bouts per game (∼1 repeated-sprint bout every 19.4 minutes of match play) (14). Spencer et al. (22) investigated the repeated-sprint demands of international field hockey and noted that the majority of repeated-sprints occurred in close proximity to goals scored. In subsequent studies of professional rugby league players, it was shown that repeated-sprints rarely occurred during competitive match play (20), although high-intensity repeated efforts (i.e., sprinting and tackling) occurred frequently and often before tries were scored or conceded (2). Collectively, these findings demonstrate the importance of repeated-sprint ability as a physical quality and suggest that the ability or inability to perform repeated-sprints (and repeated-efforts) may prove critical to match outcome in team sport competition (22).

Rugby league is similar to most high-intensity intermittent team sports, requiring frequent sprinting, separated by short recovery periods (11,12). However, a significant and unique aspect of rugby league is the high amounts of physical collisions and tackles in which players are engaged during competition (15,16). Indeed, many sprints conclude with players making contact with opposition attackers or defenders (3). Sirotic et al. (20) investigated the physiological demands of elite and semielite rugby league players using video-based tracking technology and found that high-velocity sprints occurred approximately once every 3 minutes of match play (0.3 high-velocity sprints per minute). Conversely, high acceleration sprint efforts occurred 10 times as often (3.7 high acceleration efforts per minute). Although this study provided important information on the physiological demands of professional rugby league match play, no information was provided on the typical distance covered during sprint efforts, the nature of the sprint efforts (e.g., whether the sprint effort involved a linear or curved path, contact, or included a ball carry), the activity preceding sprint efforts (e.g., standing, walking, jogging, or striding), the recovery between sprints, or the maximal velocity achieved during sprint efforts. In addition, no information was provided on the differences in sprinting demands among various playing positions. The absence of detailed and specific sprint information makes the development and application of game- and position-specific sprint training programs difficult. With this is mind, the purpose of this study was to (a) investigate the sprinting patterns of professional rugby league match play, (b) document the nature, typical distances covered, activities preceding, and the maximal velocity achieved during these sprint efforts, and (c) characterize the sprinting patterns of different rugby league playing positions.

Methods

Experimental Approach to the Problem

The sprinting demands of National Rugby League (NRL) players were investigated using a prospective case series experimental design. Movement was recorded by a minimaxX GPS unit (sampling at 5 Hz), during professional rugby league matches. The GPS unit also included triaxial accelerometers and gyroscopes sampling at 100 Hz, to provide greater accuracy on speed and acceleration, and information on physical collisions and repeated high-intensity efforts. Differences among positional groups were compared using Cohen's effect size (ES) statistic (7). It was hypothesized that meaningful differences would exist among playing positions for the distances sprinted, nature of sprint efforts, the activities preceding, and the recovery periods after sprint efforts in professional rugby league players.

Subjects

Thirty-seven elite professional rugby league players (mean ± SE age: 23.6 ± 0.5 years) participated in this study. All players were highly motivated, from the same NRL club, and were competing in the elite NRL competition. Along with the British Super League, the NRL is considered to be the highest standard of rugby league competition in the world. All players were free from injury and had completed a 12-week preseason training program at the commencement of the study. The training program progressed from high volume-low intensity activities during the preseason conditioning period to low volume–high-intensity activities during the inseason conditioning period. Each player participated in up to 5 organized field-training sessions, and 4 strength sessions per week in the preseason period, and 2–4 field-training sessions, and 1–2 strength sessions per week in the competitive phase of the season. All the players received a clear explanation of the study, including the risks and benefits of participation, and written consent was obtained. The Institutional Review Board for Human Investigation approved all experimental procedures.

Speed Testing

The speed of players was evaluated with a 40-m sprint effort (splits at 10-m intervals) using dual beam electronic timing gates (Swift Performance Equipment, New South Wales, Australia). All tests were conducted on a well-grassed surface, with players wearing football boots. The players also wore a minimaxX GPS unit (Catapult Innovations, Melbourne, Australia) sampling at 5 Hz, during the speed-testing session. The intraclass correlation coefficient for test-retest reliability and typical error of measurement for the 40-m sprint test were 0.97 and 1.2%, respectively.

Global Positioning System Analysis

Movement was recorded by a minimaxX GPS unit sampling at 5 Hz. The GPS signal provided information on speed, distance, position, and acceleration. The GPS unit also included triaxial accelerometers and gyroscopes sampling at 100 Hz, to provide greater accuracy on speed and acceleration and information on physical collisions and repeated high-intensity efforts. The unit was worn in a small vest, on the upper back of the players. All matches were filmed to determine the nature of sprint efforts (i.e., whether the sprint effort involved a linear or curved path, contact, or included a ball carry). Video footage was synchronized with the raw GPS trace using Logan Plus software (Catapult Innovations).

Global positioning system analysis was completed during 104 NRL appearances. Data were collected from 16 NRL matches, played between March and September. All matches were played in warm dry conditions, with GPS data collected against a wide range of teams to account for variability in playing styles. Players were selected from 1 of 4 positional groups, which represented the hit-up forwards (prop), wide running forwards (second row, lock), adjustables (hooker, halfback, five-eighth, and fullback), and outside backs (center, wing). Match data included GPS files from 23 hit-up forwards, 23 wide-running forwards, 29 adjustables, and 29 outside backs.

Data were categorized into (a) discrete acceleration bands, corresponding to mild (0.55–1.11 m·s−2), moderate (1.12–2.78 m·s−2), and maximal (≥2.79 m·s−2) accelerations (1); (b) discrete movement velocity bands, corresponding to very low (0–1 m·s−1), low (1–3 m·s−1), moderate (3–5 m·s−1), high (5–7 m·s−1), and very high (>7 m·s−1) velocities; (c) recovery between efforts, corresponding to short (<30 seconds), moderate (30 seconds to 2 minutes), and long (>2 minutes) recovery; and (d) repeated high-intensity effort bouts. A repeated high-intensity effort bout was defined as ≥3 high acceleration, high-velocity, or contact efforts with ≤21 seconds recovery between efforts (2,22). The minimaxX units used in this study have been shown to have acceptable validity and reliability for estimating distances (18) and have also been shown to offer a valid measurement of tackles and repeated efforts commonly observed in collision sports (5,10).

Sprinting Patterns of Match Play

Data were analyzed for the (a) frequency of sprint efforts, (b) repeated-sprint and effort activities, (c) typical distance covered during sprint efforts, (d) nature of sprint efforts (i.e., whether the sprint was linear, curved, or involved a distinct change of direction, and whether the sprint involved a collision, and occurred with or without the ball), (e) activity preceding sprint efforts (e.g., standing, walking, jogging, and striding), (f) recovery between sprint efforts, (g) percentage of maximal velocity achieved during sprint efforts, and (h) whether the sprint effort involved high accelerations or high velocities.

Statistical Analyses

Data were analyzed using a commonly used test to determine practically significant (or meaningful) differences among groups, and between different conditions (7). Given the practical nature of the study, differences among playing positions, repeated sprint and effort demands, distance and nature of sprint efforts, activities preceding and recovery after sprint efforts, and sprints performed with and without the ball were analyzed using Cohen's ES statistic (7). This technique uses a practical approach based on the real-world relevance of the results (4,7). Effect sizes of <0.09, 0.10–0.49, 0.50–0.79, and >0.80 were considered trivial, small, moderate, and large, respectively (4). All data are reported as mean ± SE.

Results

Sprint Frequency, Repeated-Sprint Activity, and Repeated-Effort Activity

An average of 35 sprints were performed per game (Table 1). Repeated-sprint bouts were uncommon, occurring between 0 and 4 times per game (mean ± SE, 1 ± 1 repeated-sprint bouts per game). However, high-intensity repeated-effort bouts (that involved a combination of sprinting and collisions) were more common than repeated-sprint bouts, occurring between 0 and 25 times per game (mean ± SE, 9 ± 1 repeated-effort bouts per game). A large difference (ES = 1.9) was detected between the number of repeated-sprint bouts and repeated-effort bouts performed per game.

Table 1
Table 1:
Sprint frequency, repeated-sprint activity, and repeated-effort activity in National Rugby League competition.*

Distance of Sprints

The majority (67.5%, ES = 1.7) of sprint efforts were across distances of less than 20 m. The highest frequency of sprint efforts occurred over distances of 6–10 m (39.7%), with a slightly lower percentage of sprints occurring over distances of 11–20 m (27.8%). Approximately 85% of all sprint efforts were <30 m (ES = 1.6) (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1:
Distance of sprints performed in National Rugby League competition.

The most common sprint distance for hit-up forwards was 6–10 m, with 46.3% of sprint efforts occurring over these distances. Outside backs had a greater proportion (33.7%) of sprint efforts over distances of ≥21 m than hit-up forwards (18.4%), wide running forwards (26.0%), and adjustables (17.3%) (ES = 1.2). The proportion of sprint efforts over ≥40 m for hit-up forwards, wide running forwards, adjustable, and outside backs was 5.0, 7.4, 5.0, and 9.7%, respectively.

Nature of Sprints

Of the sprints performed, 47.6% involved contact, whereas 52.4% involved no contact. The majority of sprints (35.2%) were straight line efforts without contact (Figure 2). Hit-up forwards and adjustables performed more sprints with a change of direction than other positional groups (ES = 0.2–0.8) performed. Outside backs were involved in a greater proportion of sprints that involved contact than other positional groups (61.1 vs. 41.4–45.8%, ES = 0.4–0.6).

Figure 2
Figure 2:
Nature of sprints performed in National Rugby League competition.

Activity Preceding Sprints

The majority (73.0%) of sprint efforts were preceded by movement (Figure 3). Almost 58.0% of sprint efforts were preceded by forward locomotion (forward walking, jogging, or striding). Over 24.0% of sprint efforts occurred from a standing start. Hit-up forwards more commonly sprinted from a standing start, or after lateral movement, whereas forward striding activities more commonly preceded sprint efforts for the adjustables (14.9%) and outside backs (14.8%).

Figure 3
Figure 3:
Activity preceding sprints performed in National Rugby League competition.

Recovery Between Sprints

The majority of sprints (67.5%) were followed by a long recovery (i.e., ≥5 minutes) (Figure 4). Outside backs had the greatest proportion (76.1%, ES = 0.9–2.7) of long duration recovery periods (i.e., ≥5 minutes), and the smallest proportion of short duration recovery periods (i.e., <60 seconds) between sprints (ES = 1.3–2.4). The proportion of short duration recovery periods was 9.0, 11.1, 15.2, and 1.8% for the hit-up forwards, wide running forwards, adjustables, and outside backs positional groups, respectively.

Figure 4
Figure 4:
Recovery between sprints performed in National Rugby League competition.

Relative Velocity Achieved during Competition

On an average, players reached 84.7% of their maximum velocity during competition sprint efforts (Table 2). The majority of sprint efforts failed to reach or exceed 90% of the players' maximum velocity (Table 2, Figure 5).

Table 2
Table 2:
Peak velocity achieved in National Rugby League competition.*
Figure 5
Figure 5:
Low, moderate, and high acceleration efforts and high velocity sprints in National Rugby League competition.

Sprints Performed with and without the Ball

The majority of sprint efforts were performed without the ball (78.7 vs. 21.3%, ES = 6.0) (Figure 6). The adjustables and outside backs performed a greater proportion of sprint efforts with the ball than the hit-up forwards and wide running forwards performed.

Figure 6
Figure 6:
Sprints performed in National Rugby League competition with and without the ball.

Discussion

The purpose of this study was to investigate the sprinting demands of professional rugby league match play and characterize the sprinting patterns of different rugby league playing positions. The results of this study demonstrate practically significant differences among playing positions for the nature of sprint efforts, and the typical distances covered during these efforts. Furthermore, the activities preceding, and the recovery periods after sprint efforts were different among playing positions. These findings suggest that, where possible, rugby league sprint training should be tailored to meet the individual demands of specific playing positions.

The majority (67.5%) of sprint efforts were across distances of ≤20 m, with few sprint efforts approaching maximum velocities. Furthermore, shorter sprint distances (6–10 m) were more common for hit-up forwards, whereas longer distances (≥21 m) were more common for outside backs and wide running forwards. Approximately, 85% of all sprint efforts were <30 m. These findings suggest that the development of acceleration qualities should be a priority for all rugby league–playing positions. Given that the amount of sprinting performed in team sport activities has been shown to decrease with reductions in field dimensions (4,6), it is likely that the field size and proximity of the 2 competing teams dictate, to a certain extent, the distances sprinted by rugby league players. The finding that the majority of sprints were across distances of ≤20 m may reflect the restricted workspace afforded to rugby league players. However, it should also be recognized that the outside backs and wide running forwards positional groups had a greater proportion of longer distance sprint efforts, with 9.7 and 7.4% of all sprints, respectively, covering distances of ≥40 m. Clearly, the development of maximal velocity qualities is of greater importance to these positional groups than to the hit-up forwards and adjustables positional groups.

Hit-up forwards and adjustables were more likely to perform sprints with a change of direction. These were often followed by a collision (e.g., adjustable sprinting forward, changing direction, and making a side-on tackle). Outside backs were more likely to be involved in curved sprint efforts followed by a collision (e.g., a dummy half run, followed by a play-the-ball). Given that almost half of the sprint efforts performed involved some contact, and almost 3% of sprint efforts were preceded by a collision, players are likely to benefit from performing some speed training that involves collisions either at the beginning or end of the sprint. Of interest was the finding that the majority of sprint efforts occurred without the ball; however, the adjustables and outside backs positional groups were more likely to perform sprint efforts with the ball in hand. These findings suggest that speed training for the adjustables and outside backs positional groups should include some exercises with the ball in hand.

The majority of sprint efforts were preceded by some form of locomotor activity (e.g., forward or backward walking, jogging, striding, or lateral movement). Hit-up forwards commonly sprinted from a standing start or after lateral movement. Striding most commonly preceded sprint efforts for the adjustables and outside backs. From a practical perspective, these findings suggest that speed training for hit-up forwards should commence from either a standing start or with some lateral movement, whereas sprints for adjustables and outside backs should commence at higher movement velocities.

A novel aspect of this study was the inclusion of individual sprint efforts, repeated-sprint bouts, and high-intensity repeated-effort bouts, and comparison of these sprinting demands among playing positions. On average, players performed 35 sprints during match play, with hit-up forwards performing a greater number of short duration, maximal acceleration efforts, and outside backs performing a greater number of longer duration, higher velocity sprint efforts. The vast majority of sprint efforts were followed by long recovery periods. Repeated-sprint bouts occurred infrequently, with players performing on average 1 repeated-sprint bout per game, irrespective of the playing position. However, high-intensity repeated-effort bouts (defined as 3 or more high acceleration sprint efforts, high-velocity sprint efforts, or collisions with minimal recovery between efforts) occurred regularly; on average, players performed 9 repeated-effort bouts per game. These findings highlight the importance of absolute speed training (with long recovery periods) for effective playing performance in rugby league players. In addition, the development of repeated-effort ability (as opposed to repeated-sprint ability) appears to be critical for rugby league players.

Although it is likely that fatigue will occur during rugby league match play, the likely mechanism of that fatigue (whether it is central or peripheral) is difficult to measure in an applied setting. Furthermore, in the NRL, selected players are interchanged throughout the match to minimize the effects of fatigue on performance. With this in mind, the interaction between fatigue and sprinting patterns was not specifically addressed in this study. However, given the contact demands of rugby league match play (3), and the large number of repeated-effort bouts (involving repeated sprinting and contact with short recovery) in comparison with repeated-sprint bouts (involving only repeated sprinting with short recovery) that occur in competition, it is plausible that sprinting performance may have deteriorated toward the latter stages of matches. Indeed, research from our laboratory (17) has recently shown that repeated-effort exercise (repeated sprinting and tackling) is associated with greater heart rate and perceived exertion and poorer sprint performance than repeated-sprint exercise (repeated sprinting in isolation), demonstrating that the addition of tackling significantly increases the physiological response to repeated-sprint exercise and reduces repeated-sprint performance in rugby league players.

In conclusion, this study investigated the sprinting demands of professional rugby league match play and characterized the sprinting patterns of different rugby league playing positions. The results of this study demonstrate practically significant differences among playing positions for the nature of sprint efforts and the typical distances covered during these efforts. Furthermore, the activities preceding and the recovery periods after sprint efforts were different among playing positions. These findings suggest that rugby league sprint training should be tailored to meet the individual demands of specific playing positions.

Practical Applications

The present findings have obvious implications for the strength and conditioning coach, attempting to provide game- and position-specific sprint training programs for rugby league players. The major findings of this study and associated practical applications are shown in Table 3.

Table 3
Table 3:
Sprinting patterns of National Rugby League competition and practical applications for the strength and conditioning coach.

First, the majority of sprint efforts were across distances of ≤20 m, with few sprint efforts approaching maximum velocities. Shorter sprint distances (6–10 m) were more common for hit-up forwards, whereas longer distances (≥21 m) were more common for outside backs and wide running forwards. These findings suggest that the development of acceleration qualities should be a priority for all rugby league playing positions, with the development of maximal velocity qualities in outside backs and wide running forwards. Where possible, sprint distances should be tailored to meet the individual demands of specific positions.

Second, given that almost half of the sprint efforts performed involved some contact, players may benefit from performing some speed training that involves collisions either at the beginning or end of the sprint. Furthermore, although the majority of sprint efforts were performed without the ball, the adjustables and outside backs positional groups were more likely to perform sprint efforts with the ball in hand. These findings suggest that speed training for adjustables and outside backs should include some exercises with the ball in hand.

Third, the majority of sprint efforts were preceded by some form of locomotor activity (e.g., forward or backward walking, jogging, striding, or lateral movement). Hit-up forwards commonly sprinted from a standing start or after lateral movement. Striding most commonly preceded sprint efforts for the adjustables and outside backs. From a practical perspective, sprint-training programs that incorporate some lateral movement and standing starts for hit-up forwards, and higher commencement velocities for adjustables and outside backs, may adequately replicate the sprinting patterns of competition.

Finally, repeated-sprint bouts occurred infrequently during competition. However, high-intensity repeated-effort bouts occurred regularly. These findings highlight the importance of developing repeated-effort ability, but not necessarily repeated-sprint ability, for rugby league players.

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Keywords:

sprinting demands; acceleration; velocity; effort; sprint training

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