Handball is an Olympic sport played worldwide and at a highly professional level in many European countries. Nevertheless, unlike other team sports, scientific knowledge regarding elite team handball's working demands is scarce. In fact, handball's time motion and physiological characteristics are poorly described because the available literature offers incomplete and contradictory results with methodological limitations. More research in this area is needed to obtain information that should be useful for the design of effective training programs and to define specific test batteries. Time-motion analysis research of handball players during games often refer to friendly matches (26,35) and only 1 study (19) conducted during the Men's World Championship in 2007 analyzed official matches. The authors described the total distance and the distance covered at different intensities during the match. However, no studies have investigated in detail the activity profile throughout the match, including low- and high-intensity movements and the specific handball actions such as turns, stops, jumps, throws, changes of direction, and one-on-one situations in the attack and defense phases. In fact, handball's tactical-technical demands during matches differ in the main phases of the game (attack vs. defense). Thus, it is expected that activity profiles would also be different between these phases. Moreover, handball's official rules were changed in 2000, which increased the intensity of the game (3,10,11). Nonetheless, only 1 study was published concerning handball time-motion characteristics after the rules' changes (19).
The ability to intermittently perform maximal short-duration activity during games is crucial to obtain a high level of performance in team sports (29). Nevertheless, no studies to date have described the frequency and duration of maximal and high-intensity activities during handball matches or the time and the intensity characteristics of periods that intersperse these activities. In contrast to team sports such as soccer (24), there is also a lack of information regarding the frequency and duration of the most and least intense periods of handball matches. On the other hand, handball involves frequent body contact and several high-intensity actions as part of match play, which have little impact on time-motion data, but are well reflected by heart rate (HR) values. Thus, although HR and time motion are considered valuable and relatively sensitive tools to measure exercise intensity, the separate analysis of match HR and activity data may provide incomplete information and can lead to a misinterpretation of the overall demands of the game. Accordingly, to better characterize the demands of the game, it would be useful to combine both types of information. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to analyze the physical and physiological demands of elite male handball players during matches. Because frequent players' substitutions characterize this sport, we also aimed to analyze the physiological strain of the overall and effective match times. We hypothesize that handball is an intermittent exercise characterized by a large percentage of time spent in low-intensity activities interspersed by high-intensity actions. We also anticipate a high number of power-related actions during the match such as sprints, stops, turns, and changes of direction that possibly lead to a decrease in exercise intensity toward the end of the match. Depending on the detailed characterization of match demands, our data will allow the development of novel training strategies and the design of proper physical tests for handball players.
Experimental Approach to the Problem
In this study, activity pattern and physiological demands during matches were examined in top professional league handball players. To address this purpose, individual HR was monitored in official matches, which were videofilmed for time-motion analysis. At the time of the evaluations, the players were in the middle of the competitive period, performing 6–7 training sessions per week and were previously acquainted with all test protocols. Body weight and fluid loss, temperature, and humidity values were recorded during matches because dehydration and hyperthermia can influence HR values.
Time-motion and HR analyses were performed on 30 outfield male players (10 of each outfield playing position: wings, backcourt players, and pivots). Weight and percentage of body fat were determined by bioimpedance analysis (Tanita Inner Scan digital—BC532, Arlington Heights, IL, USA). The players performed an incremental treadmill (Quasar-Med, Nussdorf, Germany) test until voluntary exhaustion to determine peak HR and peak oxygen consumption. Expired respiratory gas fractions were measured using an open circuit breath-by-breath automated gas-analysis system (Cortex, Metalyzer, 3 B, Leipzig, Germany). The HR was measured using an HR monitor (Vantage NV, Polar Electro, Kempele, Finland). Anthropometric and physiological characteristics of the players are presented in Table 1.
The participants had at least 5 years of experience in the top Portuguese handball professional league. The evaluated teams were regularly involved in European championships for clubs. All the subjects were previously informed of the aims and the experimental risks of the study and subsequently gave informed written consent to participate. Ethical approval was provided by the Institutional Review Board of the Faculty of Sport of the University of Porto and by the club officials.
Match Time-Motion Analysis
The players were videofilmed during 10 entire official matches from the top Portuguese handball professional league to establish game motion patterns according to the methods used in the previous studies (7). Players' displacements were coded into 8 locomotor categories defined accordingly by Bangsbo et al. (7) and considering handball's specific movements. The locomotor categories were defined as follows: (a) standing still, (b) walking, (c) jogging, (d) fast running, (e) sprinting, (f) backwards movement, (g) sideways medium-intensity movement, and (h) sideways high-intensity movement. The mean velocity of each category was determined by detailed analysis of match images using the lines of the playing court as reference. The distance covered in each category equaled the product of the total time and the mean speed for that activity (17). The total distance covered during a match was calculated as the sum of the distances for each type of activity. High-intensity activities equaled the sum of categories 4, 5, and 8, and low-intensity activities were the sum of categories 1, 2, 3, 6, and 7. In addition, 5 types of specific handball playing actions were also studied: (a) jumps, (b) shots, (c) stops when preceded by high-intensity activities, (d) changes of direction, and (e) one-on-one situations. This is in accordance to the methods of Bangsbo et al. (7) and handball's specificities. The total duration of the matches and distance covered were analyzed. For each locomotor category, the percentage of total time and distance, the duration, distance, and frequency were determined. The most and least high-intensity periods of the match were identified in 5-minute intervals. These periods represent the 5-minute interval with the greatest and least percentage of time spent in high-intensity activities, respectively (adapted from Mohr et al. ). Average time between each activity and intensity change (i.e., each change of locomotor and intensity [high and low] category, respectively) was determined. The recovery time, that is, the time intervals between (a) the maximal intensity activities (i.e., sprints and sideways high-intensity movement) and between (b) the high-intensity activities were also analyzed. According to the definition, the time intervals between (a) the beginning of the match and the first maximal intensity activity, (b) the last maximal intensity activity in the first half and the half-time break, and (c) the last maximal intensity activity in the second half and the end of the match was excluded. The same criteria were used in time intervals between high-intensity activities. The same experienced observer performed all the analyses. The first and the second halves of each match were analyzed in a random order. Before the analysis of each player was initiated, the individual players' styles of locomotion were studied intensively, and several validation tests were performed for each player according to the predetermined categories of locomotion. The validation tests included a test-retest analysis of one half of 10 matches (randomly selected) and the analysis was initiated when intraclass correlation coefficient was >0.80. Because this study aimed to describe the demands of a playing position, data were collected from the playing position and not from individual players (37), which means that when a player was substituted, the camera filmed the substitute. Data were analyzed for the entire match.
Sixty HR recordings of 30 outfield players (27 wings, 23 backcourt players, and 10 pivots) were registered in 5-second intervals using Polar Team System (Polar Electro Oy) during 10 official matches. The players were previously acquainted with the use of HR monitors during matches. Individual maximal HR (HRmax) was previously determined using the Yo-Yo intermittent endurance test—level 2 (4). The HR values were analyzed during the first and second halves. Team handball rules allow unlimited substitutions of players throughout the match. Therefore, it is unusual that one athlete plays the entire match time (19,31). Also, a 1-minute time-out period is allowed for each team, in each half. Several other match contingencies involve the interruption of the match time (e.g., players' injuries and suspensions). Thus, the HR during the match was analyzed (a) as total HR (i.e., HR during total match time) aiming to globally characterize cardiovascular demands imposed by the handball match and (b) as effective HR (i.e., HR during effective match time), aiming to describe match demands only during the time in which the player is on the playing court. In the first case, 2-minute suspensions and the half-time break were excluded from the total match time. Nevertheless, in both cases, the time outs were considered. For this purpose, the matches were filmed. Procedures regarding image collection were described above, although in this case, the players were filmed during the entire match time. The matches were held under neutral temperature (17–21° C) and humidity conditions (50–70%). For the determination of effective time spent on each HR zone, only the values corresponding to the first and second halves were considered.
Fluid Loss and Intake
Because dehydration and hyperthermia during a match can influence HR values, body weight and fluid loss were recorded during the matches. To determine sweat loss during a match, the players were weighted wearing dry shorts, immediately before and after the matches using a digital balance (Tanita Inner Scan digital—BC532). The players were allowed to drink water ad libitum during the matches, and water intake was recorded. Weight and fluid loss (absolute and relative to body mass) due to the match were calculated according to Andersson et al. (2).
Reliability of all variables was estimated using a test-retest procedure after 7 days, with a random subsample of 10 subjects. The reliability of the anthropometric measurements was determined by the coefficient of variation (<5%), whereas the intraclass correlation coefficient was used for the other variables (R > 0.80).
Results are presented as mean ± SD and range. Differences between HR and time-motion variables during the 2 halves were assessed by Student's paired t-test. Differences between high- and low-intensity activities, attack and defense phases, and total and effective HR were determined by Student's unpaired t-test. Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS Inc., version 17.0) was used for all analyses. Statistical significance was set at p ≤ 0.05.
Activity Profile during Matches
The number of occurrences and the total time spent and distance covered (absolute and relative values) for each locomotor and intensity category performed by the handball players during the match are presented in Table 2. The duration and distance covered in each locomotor category are also shown.
Match duration was 73 ± 4.5 minutes, and the total distance covered during the handball match was 4,370 ± 702.0 m. The time between each activity change (i.e., locomotor category) was 5.6 ± 1.03 seconds. In addition, the time between each intensity change (i.e., from high to low intensity or vice versa) was 55 ± 31.6 seconds. The first 5-minute period of the game showed the highest percentage of time spent in high-intensity activities, whereas the first 5-minute period of the second half showed the lowest. The most frequent highly demanding playing actions of the game were stops and changes of direction (Table 3). Both types of actions and also one-on-one situations were more frequent in the defense than in the attack phase (p ≤ 0.01).
The activity profile in both halves of the match is presented in Figure 1.
The time spent in high-intensity movements during the match decreased in the second half (4.1 ± 2.10 vs. 3.2 ± 1.55%; p = 0.04), as well as the frequency of stops, changes of direction, and one-on-one situations (Table 3). The number of the most intense periods of the match was also lower in the second half than in the first half (56 vs. 42). Furthermore, an increase in the frequency of time outs and the time between each activity change (5.3 ± 1.13 vs. 5.9 ± 1.02 seconds; p = 0.00) was also observed in the second half (Table 3).
The players spent 8% more time standing still in the defensive phase than in the attack phase (Figure 2; p = 0.00). The opposite was observed for walking (p = 0.00). Differences between the activity profiles of the 2 phases of the game were more evident in sideways movements, which were more frequent in the defensive phase (p = 0.01).
The time spent in high-intensity activities in the defensive phase was higher than in the offensive phase (4.4 ± 2.16 vs. 2.9 ± 1.48%; p = 0.00) and only in the defensive phase did the time spent in these activities decrease in the second half (5.4 ± 2.71% vs. 3.5 ± 2.17%; p = 0.00). The time spent in each locomotor category of the attack and defense phases in each half of the match is presented in Figure 3.
In >60% of the occurrences, the time between maximal intensity activities was >90 seconds (Figure 4), and 52.4% of the recovery periods were fulfilled by low-intensity activities (32.2 ± 19.33% walking; 8.6 ± 16.68% sideways medium-intensity movement; 7.3 ± 9.29% jogging; 4.3 ± 8.77% backwards movement). However, in almost half of the recovery time, the players were standing still (44.9 ± 23.03%). The remaining time was spent running fast (2.8 ± 7.39%). Time between high-intensity activities was frequently <30 seconds or ≥90 seconds.
There were no significant differences in the time between maximal intensity activities in both halves of the match and only recovery periods of ≥30 and <60 seconds showed a significant decrease in the second half. Also, the activity pattern between maximal intensity activities did not show significant differences between both halves of the match.
Match Heart Rate Analysis
The peak HR during the match was 185 ± 9.6 b·min−1 and the effective mean HR was 157 ± 18.0 b·min−1 (82 ± 9.3% of HRmax), whereas the total mean HR was 10% lower (139 ± 31.9 b·min−1; 72 ± 16.7% of HRmax; p = 0.00; Figure 5). During the second half, effective (160 ± 16.7 vs. 153 ± 18.7 b·min−1; p = 0.00) and total (141 ± 33.0 vs. 136 ± 30.4 b·min−1; p = 0.00) mean HR decreased comparing with the first half.
For more than half of the effective match time (53%), the players exercised at intensities >80% HRmax and only 7% of total effective time was spent at an HR <60% HRmax. The percentage of effective match time spent at different interval percentages of players' HRmax in both halves of the match is presented in Figure 6.
The percentage of time spent at exercise intensities >80% HRmax decreased during the second half; consequently, an increase in time spent at low intensities was observed, although no significant differences were observed in the lowest HR zone (i.e., <50% HRmax).
Fluid Loss and Intake
The body weight loss during the matches was 0.8 ± 0.52 (0.0–1.4) kg corresponding to 0.9 ± 0.34 (0.0–1.3) % of their body mass, and their fluid intake was 1.19 ± 0.298 (0.6–1.5) L. Thus, the fluid loss during matches was 2.1 ± 0.35 (1.4–2.9) L corresponding to 2.3 ± 0.36 (1.9–3.1)% of the body mass.
This is the first study providing detailed information on the movement pattern of elite male handball players during the different parts and phases of the game. Moreover, the cardiac response during matches was evaluated through continuous analysis of HR. Low-intensity exercise was a major component during the matches, although high-intensity moments and actions were often required. The attack and defense phases of the game showed different activity profiles and exercise intensity evaluated by both time-motion and HR, declined in the second half of the match. The decrease in time spent in high-intensity activities during the second half of the match was only observed in the defense phase.
Time-motion analysis showed that during the average 73 minutes of match time, 825 activity changes were performed at 6 seconds intervals. Although no values are yet reported for team handball, other team sports such as basketball require less time between each activity change (22), whereas similar values were described for field hockey (37). The differences between the sports are probably because of the frequently long lasting transitions between the defense and attack phases of a handball match and to the larger field area for this sport.
The results suggest that handball players spend a considerable amount of energy in acceleration and deceleration movements and illustrate the intermittent nature of their efforts, which is a common trait in team sports (6,22,37). In fact, stops and changes of direction were the most frequent high-demand actions performed during the game, accounting for 60% of the total 103 playing actions registered. Another common characteristic in team sports such as soccer (7), basketball (22), or field hockey (37) is the high fraction of total time spent in low-intensity activities. The present study values for these activities are similar to those reported for the aforementioned sports. In fact, in 64% of all match activities, the players were standing still or walking, although for short time periods (7 and 6 seconds, respectively). Jogging was much less frequent (about one-third) as well as sideways medium-intensity and backwards movements. The categories with the lowest frequency and mean duration were sprinting and sideways high-intensity movements, while walking and standing still showed the highest values. The players covered more distance during sprints or in fast running, whereas backwards movements accounted for the shorter distances. Relative frequency (8.8 ± 2.76%), time spent (3.6 ± 1.61%), and distance covered (18.3 ± 7.70%) in high-intensity activities during the match were clearly less than low-intensity ones (p ≤ 0.02). The majority of the total match time was spent standing still (43.0 ± 9.27%) or walking (35.0 ± 6.94%) and only 0.4 ± 0.31% sprinting. Although the total distance covered was higher, the fraction of the total distance covered in high-intensity activities is considerably smaller than the reported for other elite handball players during the Men's World Championship in 2007 (19). Like data from elite soccer players (14,24), the amount of high-intensity activities seems to differentiate top-class handball players from those of a lower caliber. However, the relative time spent in high-intensity movements is similar to those results reported by Sibila et al. (35) but lower than that registered by Pers et al. (26) in friendly matches. These differences may be related to the fact that, unlike other studies that ignored the influence of the competition level and playing position variables in match performance, our work involved high-level competitive matches and analyzed all outfield player positions. In fact, a considerable variation of the results was also shown and may be related to above-mentioned factors, namely, the playing position because it has been proposed that physical performance and activities of the players are closely related to the position role in the team (19,24,35).
Maximal intensity activities were frequently interspersed by periods lasting ≥90 seconds (Figure 4), and 52.4% of the recovery periods were of an active nature, which improved performance during short-duration, high-intensity exercise (36). Nonetheless, for almost half of the recovery time, the players were standing still. Recovery activities were equally distributed by long and short time intervals (i.e., <30 or ≥90 seconds). The longer periods are probably the result of technical or disciplinary infractions to the rules of the game, which imply a time-out or, at least, a decrease of intensity of movements and actions. The slow transition between the phases of defense and attack, as well as the initial phase of preparation of the positional attack or defense phases, should also be considered.
In this study, the time between each change in intensity, that is, a change from high to low intensity or vice versa, was 55 seconds, which is similar to values reported for field hockey (37). Therefore, it is possible that in certain moments of a match, the recovery time between high-intensity exercise periods may not be sufficient to fully allow the recovery of performance indices. Thus, exercise intensity was compromised for the subsequent phases (see HR response in Figures 5 and 6 and activity profile in Figure 1 and Table 3), a concept that some authors have referred to as temporary fatigue (18,24). Hence, it is possible that the reduced physical capacity, particularly repeated-sprint ability of the players, should also be considered as a contributing factor for the decline in game intensity.
According to our data, the first 5-minute interval of the first half is the most intense interval of matches. This agrees with results from soccer, which reported the first 15 minutes of the match showed the greatest percentage of high-intensity activity (24). On the other hand, the first 5-minute period of the second half showed the lowest percentage of time spent in high-intensity activities. The decline in muscle and core temperature during the half-break was associated with a lowered sprint performance for the initial part of the second half of soccer matches, whereas sprint performance could be maintained if low-intensity exercise was carried out during this period, aiming to preserve muscle temperature (25). An increase in muscle temperature before high-intensity exercise has a beneficial effect on performance (8,16,34,38). Accordingly, it is tempting to speculate that a re–warm-up during the half-break of a handball match could prevent the observed decrease of intensity at the onset of the second half. Additional studies are needed to clarify the consequences of reduced intensity during the half-break in the second half game performance and whether a re–warm-up during the half-break could minimize the decrease in high-intensity activity during the first minutes of the second half.
To the best of our knowledge, there are no studies that analyzed the specific time-motion demands of attack and defense phases of the game in handball or other team sports. The defensive phase of matches was more physically demanding than the offensive one, which probably explains why the decrease in intensity in the second half of the match was only observed for the defensive phase. During the defensive phase, the players need to be proactive to react properly to offensive actions from the other team. Thus, during the transition phase between attack and defense, as the attackers tended to jog or walk to the offensive goal area, the defenders had to sprint or run fast to prevent possible goal opportunities. This may potentially explain the higher intensity of movements observed in the defensive phase. Furthermore, sideways movements, which represent a relevant part of the game time (Table 2), showed a clear predominance in the defensive phase. These results are expected given the specificity of this phase, namely, the need to visually follow the ball lateral movements as the players readjust defensive positions through sideways displacements. These data might also explain the decrease in the intensity of defense activities during the second half. In fact, it was suggested that unorthodox modes of motion such as running backwards and sideways running accentuate the metabolic load eliciting elevated levels of energy expenditure (28).
Despite the known variation in the HR because of several factors (1,9), it is still a commonly used method to estimate exercise intensity (23,27,32). Effective and total HR refers to HR responses during the time in which the player is inside the playing court and the total game time, respectively. This distinction is of importance in team handball because the rules of the game allow an unlimited number of substitutions without playing time stoppages. For instance, for most of the transitions between game phases, the players sprint or run fast to be replaced by another colleague. Effective mean HR during the match was 157 b·min−1 and corresponded to 82% of maximal HR, whereas total mean HR was 10% lower (139 ± 31.9 b·min−1). This 10% difference between both measurements might be because of the higher HR of the players that are active on the playing field than players that are seated on the substitute's bench. This is also in accordance to results from studies that showed handball players rarely play the entire game (19,31). This option could be because of strategic, tactical-technical, physiological or even physical factors. In fact, the decline in game intensity in the second half observed in the analysis of activity profile (Figure 1 and Table 3) was confirmed by HR recordings, as both total and effective HR decreased during the second half (Figures 5 and 6). A decrease in physical and physiological markers of exercise intensity during the second half has also been reported in soccer (5,7,14,24,30). On the other hand, no changes were observed in movement patterns of the 4 periods of a basketball game (22). Dehydration and hyperthermia were also suggested to contribute to fatigue development toward the end of the game by compounding to the cardiovascular stress, which affects cellular metabolism and consequently performance (12,15,18,20,33). Nonetheless, the analyzed matches were performed in thermoneutral conditions and average relative body weight loss was below the limit suggested to increase the HR above the values considered critical to impose deleterious cardiovascular strain and to impair exercise performance (12). However, further studies are needed to better understand the physiological and physical strains related to the possible development of fatigue during elite male handball matches.
No study exists describing the HR of handball players during matches. Relative values were lower than those reported for soccer (6) and basketball players (22). Furthermore, a relevant variation in HR response was observed between subjects. This may be related to individual differences in HRmax, physical capacity, match intensity, time played and playing position.
Despite the amount of time spent standing still or walking during a game, for more than half of the effective match time (53%), the players exercised at intensities >80% HRmax and only a small amount (7%) of total effective time was spent at HR values ≤60% HRmax. This result indicates that physiological strain during the effective game time is high. Furthermore, the data obtained through time-motion analysis should be used in addition to HR recordings to better characterize team handball physical and physiological match demands. In fact, high eccentric-related muscular requirements during the match might be imposed by decelerations, stops, throws, jumps, changes of direction, and the constant physical contact associated with one-on-one situations. These high-intensity activities may induce high HR values for prolonged periods of time. Thus, a considerable amount of high-intensity work contributing to the outcome of matches is probably performed without spending a lot of time covering large distances. For this reason, the use of time-motion analysis alone may likely underestimate the physiological strain imposed by handball matches. Physical and physiological data showed considerable variation among players, and consequently, position-related analysis should be considered in future studies.
This study shows that despite the amount of time spent in low-intensity activities, team handball is a demanding sport, because numerous high-intensity displacements and actions occur throughout the game. The aerobic system is therefore highly taxed during the game. The time between each change of intensity and the number of intense actions and movements suggest a high anaerobic energy turnover during the critical periods of the game. Therefore, the training of elite handball players should comprise exercises targeting the ability to repeatedly perform high-intensity activities and to rapidly recover during less intense periods. In addition, because a high number of intense actions are required throughout the match, basic strength training (e.g., squat, leg extension) combined with specific power-related actions (e.g., jumps, sprints) following complex and contrast training principles is advised (13,21). In this regard, players could benefit from this type of training stimuli by simultaneously improving basic strength and more specific actions frequently performed during the match. According to the HR and frequency of playing actions data, small-sided games (e.g., 1 × 1, 2 × 2, 3 × 3) with demands on strength and power capabilities should be recommended as specific training drills. Moreover, re–warm-up activities could be useful during the half-break because performance appears to decrease at the beginning of the second half of the game. Finally, these data are also useful in the design of physical tests to specifically evaluate the performance of handball players.
The authors thankfully acknowledge all the elite handball players and coaches who participated in this study. No sources of funding were used to assist in the preparation of this manuscript. The results of this study do not constitute endorsement by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Susana Póvoas, António Ascensão, and José Magalhães are supported by grants from the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (SFRH/BD/38148/2007; SFRH/BPD/4225/2007; SFRH/BPD/66935/2009, respectively).
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