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Performance Factors in Women's Team Handball: Physical and Physiological Aspects—A Review

Manchado, Carmen1; Tortosa-Martínez, Juan1; Vila, Helena2; Ferragut, Carmen3; Platen, Petra4

Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: June 2013 - Volume 27 - Issue 6 - p 1708–1719
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182891535
Brief Review
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Manchado, C, Tortosa-Martínez, J, Vila, H, Ferragut, C, and Platen, P. Performance factors in women's team handball: Physical and physiological aspects—A review. J Strength Cond Res 27(6): 1708–1719, 2013—Team handball is an Olympic sport played professionally in many European countries. Nevertheless, a scientific knowledge regarding women's elite team handball demands is limited. Thus, the purpose of this article was to review a series of studies (n = 33) on physical characteristics, physiological attributes, physical attributes, throwing velocity, and on-court performances of women's team handball players. Such empirical and practical information is essential to design and implement successful short-term and long-term training programs for women's team handball players. Our review revealed that (a) players that have a higher skill level are taller and have a higher fat-free mass; (b) players who are more aerobically resistant are at an advantage in international level women team handball; (c) strength and power exercises should be emphasized in conditioning programs, because they are associated with both sprint performance and throwing velocity; (d) speed drills should also be implemented in conditioning programs but after a decrease in physical training volume; (e) a time-motion analysis is an effective method of quantifying the demands of team handball and provides a conceptual framework for the specific physical preparation of players. According to our results, there are only few studies on on-court performance and time-motion analysis for women's team handball players, especially concerning acceleration profiles. More studies are needed to examine the effectiveness of different training programs of women's team handball players' physiological and physical attributes.

1Faculty of Education, University of Alicante, Alicante, Spain;

2Faculty of Sport Sciences, University of Vigo, Vigo, Spain;

3Faculty of Medicine, University of Alcalá de Henares, Alcalá de Henares, Spain; and

4Faculty of Sport Sciences, Ruhr University Bochum, Bochum, Germany

Address correspondence to Dr. Carmen Manchado, carmen.manchado@ua.es.

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Introduction

In this review, we use the term “handball” to refer to the game played between 2 teams, each comprising 6 court players and a goalkeeper (51).

Since its introduction in 1972 at the Summer Olympic Games (18), handball has become more popular as a sport in general. Handball is a very strenuous body-contact sport characterized by highly developed motor skills such as speed, explosive power, endurance, and strength (40). The athlete's performance in high-level women's handball depends directly on diverse physiological attributes. To reach maximum player performance in handball, it is essential to use knowledge from various sports-related domains, including exercise physiology and sports medicine (51).

Anthropometric characteristics, such as body size, body mass, body mass index, and body fat percentage, play a highly important role when discussing sport success and results (5,43,47). Ball throwing velocity is also an important factor in Handball (14,17,19). This velocity depends on the player's ability to accelerate the ball with an over-arm throw, the duration of the movement, which reduces visual information for the goalkeeper, and the accuracy of the throw (6).

The importance of women's handball in research literature has grown exponentially, with the most relevant articles published over the last 5 years (2,13,15,16,18,20,24,27,29,40,45–47,49). We also have included some of our own unpublished data with a special focus on on-court movement characteristics. Nevertheless, evidence-based knowledge for trainers and sport scientists regarding women's elite team handball is limited, although necessary for further developing player's skills and handball in general. Therefore, the first objective of this review is to summarize the scientific knowledge in women's handball.

Information on training-related issues of women handball players, such as anthropometric measurements (15,24), physiological attributes (29,30), physical attributes (16,21), throwing velocity and accuracy (15,19,44,48), and on-court performance (30,33,41), can be used effectively in women's handball programs, especially in strength and conditioning programs.

Thus, this article has 3 aims: (a) to review a series of studies (n = 33) on physical characteristics, physiological attributes, throwing velocity and accuracy, and on-court performances of women's handball players including amateur players, professional players, and national team players; (b) to summarize the status of scientific knowledge in women handball including fields with a clear need for further studies to stimulate more research; and (c) to suggest practical recommendations for women's handball coaches.

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Methods

A review of the literature on physical and physiological aspects of women handball players was conducted. The reviewed articles were selected from an extensive search of the literature in English, including major computerized databases (PubMed, Medline, and SPORT Discus) and library archive search tools. Various combinations of keywords were used, including handball, team, women's, women, physiological, physical and player. Data from unpublished studies conducted by the authors were also included. Ultimately, 33 articles were included in this review.

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Results and Discussion

To plan, design, and implement successful short-term and long-term training programs for women handball players, it is essential to gather information about the physical characteristics and physiological attributes of the players.

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Physical Characteristics

It is well known that body size affects physical performance. A taller person would perform better in activities with a significant strength component. Athletes specialized in throwing events are taller, heavier, and more muscularly built than are nonthrowers. Body size has a strong positive effect on throwing performance and isometric strength (43,47).

The number of studies dealing with anthropometric characteristics of women handball players is rather small in comparison to those for male athletes. A summary of the physical characteristics of women's handball players across the reviewed studies is presented in Table 1. The mean height of handball players ranged from 163 ± 7 cm in 181 adolescent Greek players (49) to 179.0 ± 0.0 cm in 7 players of the Norwegian national team (39).

Table 1

Table 1

The study recording the lowest mean body mass focused on young players (57.5 ± 7.9 kg) (43). In contrast, the studies that reported the highest mean body mass included the Norwegian national women's team (72.0 ± 6.3 kg [39]; 71.6 ± 5.7 kg [21]). Body fat percentages ranged from 19.39 ± 4.5% in Croatian elite players (5) to 28.4 ± 3.6% for Norwegian national league players (43).

Michalsik (33) found that wing players were shorter and had less body mass than back and pivot players did; and Cizmek et al. (5) found that wing players had the lowest height and weight, whereas goalkeepers were the tallest and the heaviest. These differences could be caused because of the specific requirements that dictate types and structures of movements performed by players. Wings players cover the biggest field area and perform most of the counterattacks; therefore, they are in need of lighter, swift bodies with the ability of fast movement changes and agility (5). However, no significant differences in height and body mass were revealed according to the players' position (goalkeeper, back, center, and wing) for elite Asian women handball players (18) and elite players of the Spanish first division (46).

Granados et al. (16) assessed 16 elite first league Spanish women players 4 times over the course of a season: during the first week after the beginning of the first preparatory period, at the beginning and the end of the first competition period, and at the end of the second competitive period. The researchers found no differences in body mass during the season; however, fat-free mass significantly increased by 1.8 ± 1.2%, and percent body fat significantly decreased by 9.0 ± 8.7% (p < 0.01) over the season.

Granados et al. (15) and Milanese et al. (34) compared elite (EP) and amateur (AP) women handball players. In both studies, EPs were taller and had a higher fat-free mass than APs did. The authors concluded that taller and more powerfully built players have a competitive advantage in women's handball. Similarly, Bayios et al. (4) found that athletes at higher competition levels were taller, leaner, heavier, and were more homogenous in somatotype characteristics. These authors compared Greek women ball players (handball players, basketball players, and volleyball players). Handball players were found to be the shortest with the highest values in body fat, being characterized by a great heterogeneity of their somatotype, which was mesomorph-endomorph (4.2–4.7–1.8). Volleyball players' somatotype was characterized as balanced endomorph (3.4–2.7–2.9) and basketball players' somatotype as mesomorph-endomorph (3.7–3.2–2.4). The same researchers found differences between elite and amateur handball players' somatotypes. Although EPs were characterized as mesomorph-endomorph (4.0–4.1–1.8), APs were characterized as endomorph-mesomorph (4.3–5.2–1.8). Gholami and Sabbaghian Rad (13) found similar characteristics for Iranian national team handball players (mesomorph-endomorph; 3.6–4.7–1.7). A higher muscle mass evidenced in the mesomorphic component in handball players constitutes a significant advantage to confront the intense body contact that takes place during a game.

To succeed in specific sport activities, it is often necessary to have certain physical characteristics. For ball games in which it is essential to use one's hands, hand morphology and functional properties may play a key role for performance (2). It is believed that a stable ball grip allows the athlete to accelerate the ball to a maximum during the entire throwing movement (42). According to 2 recently published studies, defined anthropometric characteristics such as hand and arm span seem to be the main factors that correlate to ball velocity (42,47). An older study (22), however, did not find any correlation between ball velocity and segmental body lengths.

In conclusion, players with a higher skill level are taller and have a higher fat-free mass (4,15,34,35,43,47). Players with larger hands can grab the ball more tightly, and this fact probably gives the player the confidence to accelerate the ball as much as possible throughout the whole movement pathway (2,42,47). Maybe anthropometric characteristics ought to be taken into account in the talent identification when choosing a playing position.

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Physiological Attributes

Handball is a team sport of an intermittent nature that requires considerable physiological attributes such as the aerobic profile. A high aerobic capacity appears to be important to maintain a high level of performance over the 60 minutes of playing time.

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Aerobic Profile

Eleven studies examined the aerobic capacity of women's handball players. Seven of the studies mentioned collected maximal oxygen consumption (V[Combining Dot Above]O2max) data of players from different competition levels, whereas the others focused on run velocities corresponding to certain blood lactate concentrations (Table 2).

Table 2

Table 2

The V[Combining Dot Above]O2max of women's handball players from the Norwegian national team was 55.5 ± 3.9 ml·kg−1·min−1 in 1 recent study (30) and 51.3 ± 2.3 ml·kg−1·min−1 in an earlier research (21), both conducted on a treadmill. This would imply an 8% increase in V[Combining Dot Above]O2max data of a top-level team over a 10-year period. This increase in the V[Combining Dot Above]O2max was correlated with a better performance of the Norwegian national team, as can be seen in the team's final placement during European or World Championships and the Olympic Games. The 2 lowest V[Combining Dot Above]O2max values in national team handball players were 45.3 ± 5.5 ml·kg−1·min−1 in Brazilian players (36) and 47.2 ± 4.5 ml·kg−1·min−1 (28) in Spanish players. Vargas et al. (45) reported values of 45.3 ± 3.0 ml·kg−1·min−1 in a study conducted on a cycle ergometer in Brazilian first league handball players. As noted by Ziv and Lidor (51), a cycle ergometer test may underestimate V[Combining Dot Above]O2max values because handball players are not used to cycling, and therefore, local muscular fatigue may be responsible for general fatigue before the subject reaches his or her cardiovascular system limits. Jadach and Ciepliński (20) and Rodhal et al. (37) found intermediate values in players of the Polish national team (48.8 ± 3.4 ml·kg−1·min−1) and in a Norwegian amateur handball team (47.7 ± 4.1 ml·kg−1·min−1).

Four of the articles on aerobic performance in women's handball included values of run velocities corresponding to either 3 or 4 mmol·L−1 blood lactate (V3 or V4, respectively) determined in an incremental run test. Granados et al. (15) examined endurance capacity in a 4-stage submaximal discontinuous progressive run test at velocities of 8.5, 10.0, 11.5, and 13.0 km·h−1 in women's elite and amateur players. The authors found lower blood lactate concentrations and lower mean heart rates (HRs) in EPs as compared with APs during the first 3 run velocities. The V3 was 13% higher in EPs than in APs, indicating a higher aerobic performance of EPs. In addition, the same elite team was tested again when they reached an international level (5 years after the first study). The V3 increased by 7% during these 5 years (17) indicating a higher need for aerobic performance in international level women's handball. These results for women's players differ from the results for male players (14) in which no significant differences were found between the endurance capacity of elite and amateur players. Surprisingly, these authors concluded that endurance is not an important performance factor in men’s handball.

After conducting a Mader test, Manchado et al. (29,30) found V4 values of 3.34 ± 0.31 and 3.65 ± 0.25 m·s−1 for the German national team and a German first league team, respectively, indicating that the German women national players at that time had a slightly lower aerobic performance compared with the players of the first league team.

In 1 study that simultaneously analyzed the characteristics and physiological reactions in international women's team handball, Manchado et al. (30) found that individual endurance capacity determined individual demands and run performance during the matches. Players with a high level of V[Combining Dot Above]O2max were able to run faster compared with players with a lower level of V[Combining Dot Above]O2max with the same level of cardiac loads (no differences in the HRs). At the same time, players with a higher V[Combining Dot Above]O2max mainly stayed in individual aerobic metabolic run intensity categories during the match. Furthermore, Manchado et al. (29) described a highly significant positive correlation between v4 and the percentage of maximal HR used during the matches of the German national team at an international tournament. These 2 in-field studies clearly highlight the necessity of a highly developed basic endurance capacity to reduce cardiac demands and to likely optimize handball-specific performance during international matches.

Two further studies examined the changes in aerobic capacity throughout the competition phase or the season in women's handball players. In the first study of 16 players, Granados et al. (16) found no significant changes during the season in endurance capacity (V3) measured 4 times during a 45-week season lasting from August to May. In the other study (21), handball players (n = 8) slightly increased their V[Combining Dot Above]O2max from 51.3 ± 2.3 to 53.8 ± 2.7 ml·kg−1·min−1 in the period when endurance training had priority, and 2–3 weekly endurance training sessions were performed for 6 weeks.

In women's basketball players, Ziv and Lidor (50) described similar V[Combining Dot Above]O2max values as those described in handball players (ranging from 44.0 to 54.0 ml·kg−1·min−1). In a study comparable with handball, Rodriguez-Alonso et al. (38) reported higher V[Combining Dot Above]O2max values for basketball players participating at an international level as compared with those at a national level. In volleyball Lidor and Ziv (26) described V[Combining Dot Above]O2max values ranging from 41.7 to 49.9 ml·kg−1·min−1, which are slightly lower than the values reported for basketball and handball players, indicating a slightly lower importance of well-developed aerobic performance in this ball sport as compared with the other 2 sports.

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Physical Attributes

Modern style handball involves intense physical contact throughout the entire match in defense, counterattack, and positional attack. Only players with high physical capacities can effectively satisfy such requirements (20). Thus, physical attributes such as power and strength, running speed, and throwing velocity are important factors for success in competitive women's handball. Therefore, these capacities are now discussed for women handball players.

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Power and Strength

Muscle strength is an important factor in handball performance (23). Most researchers agree that higher maximal power and strength may be associated with an advantage in blocking, hitting, pushing (15), and ball throwing velocity (3,10,22,31). Nevertheless, little is known about changes in power and strength with regard to training in women's handball players. Only 2 studies that examined changes in power and strength with training were found. In 1 study, Granados et al. (16) found significant increases in 1-repetition maximum (1RM) bench press from the beginning of the preparation phase (T1) to the end of the first competition phase (T3), with a 6.4% increase of maximal values (from 45.8 ± 5.7 to 48.9 ± 6.5 kg). At the end of the second competitive period (T4), the increase was 11.3% (51.6 ± 6.7 kg) compared with T1. Moreover, muscle power output of the lower extremity was 7–13% higher at T4 and T3 compared with that at T1 (p < 0.05). In the other study, Jensen et al. (21) found maximal isometric strength increasing gradually from T1 to T3 (154.6 ± 25.7 N at T1, 160.5 ± 24.8 N at T2, and 168.9 ± 26.8 N at T3, respectively). In contrast to the previous study (16), however, Jensen et al. (21) reported that maximal isometric strength tended to decrease again in T4 compared with T3. The authors concluded that increasing maximal isometric strength in women's handball players during a season is possible, even though many handball sessions are held in addition to specific strength training sessions.

Differences in power and strength have been shown to be relatively marked between elite and amateur players. Bench press 1RM was 23% higher in EPs (47.9 ± 6.2 kg) than in APs (36.7 ± 4.6 kg) (15). Power output of the upper extremities at all loads was also significantly higher in EPs. Similarly, the average power output of the lower extremities at all loads examined was 12% higher in EPs than in APs. These findings suggest that high absolute values of maximal strength and muscle power are required for successful performance in elite women's handball. It was also found that when muscle power output during half-squat at submaximal loads was expressed relative to body mass in kilograms, the differences observed between the 2 groups in their ability to rapidly move different relative loads were reduced, and disappeared when submaximal loads were expressed relative to kilograms of fat-free mass (15). This has also been observed in elite male handball players (14). To explain this fact, the authors (15) suggest that (a) neural activation patterns and twitch tension per muscle mass under submaximal concentric half-squat actions are rather similar between EPs and APs, and (b) differences in fat-free mass alone could account for the differences observed in strength and muscle power. However, the maximal power and strength of EPs compared with APs will give them a clear advantage, because many of the handball skills such as hitting, blocking, pushing, and holding require superior absolute strength and muscle power.

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Running Speed

Running speed is an important prerequisite factor in competitive handball (10). Sprint performances over 5 and 15 m were reported by Granados et al. (15) to be different between elite and amateur women's handball players. The EPs exhibited 4% lower maximal sprint running time for 5 m than the APs did (1.10 ± 0.05 and 1.14 ± 0.03 seconds for EPs and APs, respectively [p < 0.05]). Similarly, the EPs exhibited 3% lower maximal sprint running time for 15 m than the APs did (2.64 ± 0.09 and 2.71 ± 0.08 seconds for EPs and APs, respectively [p < 0.05]). No changes in sprint performance were observed in elite women's players throughout the entire competitive season (16). According to the authors of the latter study, the progressive increase in training volume during the season, and the short time (<0.3% of the total time) dedicated to sprint training, might explain the absence of changes observed in sprint running performance (16).

In contrast to the previous study, Jensen et al. (21) reported that maximal running velocity increased by 2.2% during the season in 8 elite women's handball players. However, during the period with the heaviest strength training, the mean maximal running velocity tended to decrease, although 1–2 sprint training sessions were performed each week. According to the authors, this result may indicate that a decrease in physical training volume is important to increase sprint performance (21).

The power of the lower extremities and the maximum running speed are significantly correlated with ball throwing velocity (15,31,48). This is supported by the fact that the main factor affecting ball velocity is the effective energy transition from the ground to the lower extremities and through the kinematic chain to the throwing upper limb (3,22). The correlation of running speed with ball throwing velocity indicates that as long as the ability of attaining maximum speed increases, the ball throwing velocity also increases (47). This correlation may be attributed to the percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers (8) and neural aspects such as synchronization and recruitment of motor units (51). In high velocity movements such as throwing, fast motor units are recruited preferentially (19).

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Throwing Velocity and Accuracy

Throwing ability is one of the most vital skills in handball and a very important aspect for success (15). For a throw to be effective, the highest velocity at ball release in combination with aiming accuracy is required (19). The faster the ball is thrown at the goal, the less time the defenders and the goalkeeper have to save the shot.

A summary of studies examining throwing velocity and accuracy in women's handball players is presented in Table 3. These data should be interpreted with care, because there are very few studies, the methodologies used are different (radar gun, photogrammetry, photocell gates), and sample levels vary as well.

Table 3-a

Table 3-a

Table 3-b

Table 3-b

Differences in throwing velocity between elite and amateur players were reported by Granados et al. (15). The EPs threw the ball faster in the standing throw and the 3-step running throw than APs (an 11% difference, p < 0.01). In both groups, the average handball velocity with 3-step running throw was higher (8 and 7%; p < 0.01 for EPs and APs, respectively) than in the standing throw. In both groups, the individual 1RM bench press values correlated positively with the individual standing-throw velocity values (r = 0.61 and 0.69, p < 0.05, n = 16 and n = 11 for EPs and APs, respectively). In the group of EPs, the individual 3-step running throw velocity values correlated with the individual values of concentric velocity production at the load of 30% of 1RM (r = 0.55, p < 0.05, n = 16). Furthermore, the individual 3-step running throw velocity values correlated significantly with the individual maximal 1RM values in APs (r = 0.81, p < 0.01, n = 11).

The effectiveness of the throwing skill depends on both ball velocity and accuracy. Therefore, players should maintain their ability in both parameters throughout the game. However, the effort players exert during the game can potentially reduce the effectiveness in throwing skill over the course of the game, either in velocity or in accuracy (48). The influence of simulated game activities in throwing effectiveness (ball velocity and accuracy) in women's handball players was examined by Zapartidis et al. (47). Sixteen women handball players participated in simulated game activities that included distinctive handball activities for 60 minutes (2 halves of 30 minutes). For testing ball velocity and accuracy, the subjects performed 3 shots on the spot toward a target from a 7-m distance every 10 minutes. Throwing effectiveness was significantly affected by time, as aiming accuracy gradually decreased. However, ball velocity remained stable.

A number of studies have assessed the contribution of training to increasing throwing velocity in handball players. One study (16) examined changes in throwing velocity over a handball season in elite women's players and found significant increases in standing and 3-step running throws at the end of the first preparatory period, at the end of the first competitive period, and at end of the second competitive period compared with the beginning of the season. In addition, significant correlations were observed from the beginning to the end of the season between throwing velocity changes and relative changes in physical performance.

A study examining the effects of maximum strength training on throwing velocity (19) found that after 9 weeks of maximum progressive training using bench press and regular handball training, players had an increase of 18% in the standing-throw velocity from pretest to posttest and a 17% increase in velocity in throwing with a 3-step run-in. However, control group (CG) players that participated only in regular handball training also had an increase of 15% in the standing-throw velocity from pretest to posttest and a 9% increase in velocity in throwing with a 3-step run-in, indicating that additional bench press training was not effective in increasing throwing velocity.

Van Muijen et al. (44) took an in-depth look at the effect of training with underweight and overweight balls on throwing performance. The players were trained during 8 weeks with a frequency of 2 sessions per week. They were randomly divided into 3 groups of 15 subjects each: (a) a CG with regular training, using regular handballs (∼400 g), (b) a heavy training group (HTG) exercising with a heavy ball (∼500 g), and (c) a light training group (LTG) exercising with a light ball (∼300 g). In the 2 experimental groups, the players completed a specific throwing session of 30 maximal overarm throws in addition to the regular training. After 8 weeks of practice, there was a significant increase in ball velocity of 0.4 m·s−1 in LTG and no change in the CG and HTG, respectively. The authors concluded that the higher force for throwing needed by HTG reduced the velocity of the arm movement execution resulting in lower ball velocities.

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Oncourt Performances

Generally, it is interesting and useful for sport scientists and professional sport disciplines to learn more about the movements performed by players in sport games. Detailed information on the movements such as the distances covered by players, the velocities of their movements, and position in 2-dimensional space during a game provides comprehensive assessment of the demands of competition and assists in developing specific training regimes (7).

Continuous measurement of the HR allows for an analysis of individual physiological demands during intermittent exercise, including team sports (32), because variations in the HR during exercise correlate with a small time delay with alterations in exercise intensities (1). Only 4 studies examined HR during handball matches, and among these studies, only 1 regarding women's top-level handball players during an official tournament (29). This study examined 7 matches of the German women's national team (n = 14) during the European Championship in 2004 in Hungary. The study reported a mean HR of 85.8% of maximum HR (HRmax) with a broad variation between players from 74.7 to 91.7%. Cardiopulmonary demands were very high for most of the players in all matches, showing wide periods close to individual HRmax. As indicated above, the authors demonstrated that the worse the individual basic endurance, the higher the individual loads during this highly demanding tournament. This clearly demonstrates the necessity of basic endurance training and the development of a high maximum oxygen uptake in international top-level handball. However, because no time-motion analysis was carried out during that study, no interrelations between movement patterns and physiological demands could be established.

In a more recent study, Manchado et al. (30) conducted time-motion analysis during matches of the German and Norwegian women's national teams. Eleven players from Germany and 14 players from Norway at different positions (3 goalkeepers, 12 back, 10 wing and pivot) agreed to participate (age: 25.2 ± 2.8 years; height: 175.2 ± 6.3 cm; weight: 67.8 ± 4.9 kg; V[Combining Dot Above]O2max: 53.1 ± 4.8 ml·kg−1·min−1; HRmax: 194.8 ± 5.2 b·min−1, V4: 3.62 ± 0.25 m·s−1). The study used the computerized SAGIT match analysis system. The mean HR during the match was approximately 86% of HRmax, and for >90% of playing time, it was higher than 85% of HRmax. With the exception of the goalkeepers, who had lower values, no position-specific differences could be detected. During the second half of the match, the players stayed in higher intensities with a mean HR >95% of HRmax for a longer time period as compared to the first half of the match. The mean running distance during the match was 4,614 m and varied widely between goalkeepers (2,066 m) and field players (5,251 m). Accordingly, the mean running distance per minute also varied between goalkeepers (31.3 m·min−1) and field players (69.7 m·min−1). No significant differences could be detected between field players of different positions. Running distance per minute was lower during the second half of the match (65.1 ± 18.0 m·min−1) compared with the first half (71.5 ± 17.2 m·min−1). The authors summarized that endurance capacity, being measured by means of V[Combining Dot Above]O2max and V4, determines the individual demands during a handball match: players with a high level of V[Combining Dot Above]O2max are able to execute activities with a higher intensity (measured as running distance per minute) as compared with players with a low level of V[Combining Dot Above]O2max, with the same level of cardiac load (no differences could be detected in the mean HR and % HRmax). At the same time, players with higher V[Combining Dot Above]O2max mainly stay in aerobic metabolic intensity categories during the match.

In addition, horizontal sprint accelerations of the players were also analyzed during the same match (Manchado et al., submitted). Values for the different acceleration categories were as follows: A1 < −4.5 m·s−2; A2 ≥ −4.5 < −3 m·s−2; A3 ≥ −3 < −1.5 m·s−2; A4 ≥ −1.5 < 0 m·s−2; A5 ≥ 0 < 1.5 m·s−2; A6 ≥ 1.5 < 3 m·s−2; A7 ≥ 3 < 4.5 m·s−2; and A8 ≥ 4.5 m·s−2. One acceleration was counted whenever the player changed from 1 acceleration category to another. The authors found the total number of accelerations per minute to be high (∼200 min−1). Significant negative correlations were described between individual V[Combining Dot Above]O2max values and the number of accelerations per minute in nearly all acceleration categories, including the total number of accelerations per minute. In contrast, significant positive correlations between V[Combining Dot Above]O2max and the duration of the acceleration and the covered distance in all acceleration categories except for the highest and lowest categories (A1 and A8) were detected. In this study, the authors could demonstrate for the first time that acceleration profiles of horizontal movements in women's top-level handball players depend on aerobic performance. The fitter the players were, the fewer number of acceleration actions they performed, but the longer they performed in all but the fastest of the different acceleration categories.

Michalsik (33) followed 24 Danish women's elite handball players over a 4-year period (2002–2006). A mean total distance of 4.0 km was covered per match with an average physical load corresponding to 79% of V[Combining Dot Above]O2max, which has been calculated from HR measurements. A game consisted of up to 700 activity changes with an average of 27 high intense actions per match. In contrast to Manchado et al. (submitted), Michalsik (33) found distinct differences in the physical demands in the various playing positions, with wing players doing more high intensive work, covering a greater run distance, and tackling less compared with back players.

Another recent study compared the amount and variation of movements in kinematic and metabolic responses in 7 elite handball players during training practice and official games at the end of the competitive period (41). The average HR during a game (165.0 ± 7.9 b·min−1) was found to be similar with HR during training practice (164.6 ± 10.1 b·min−1) corresponding to 90.1 and 89.9% of the HRmax. However, time spent below 60% HRmax was higher, and the time spent above 81% of the HRmax was lower during practice as compared with that during games. Furthermore, players covered greater total distances and accounted for more high-intensity running during games (5,133 ± 243 and 935 ± 152 m, respectively) compared with practices (3,186 ± 426 and 443 ± 95 m, respectively). During practice, the distance covered below the medium intensity running velocity was found to be higher and above this intensity was found to be lower than for games. The highest relative amount of time during practice (72.9%) and during games (68.2%) was spent standing and walking. The authors concluded that kinematic variables of training created lower metabolic demands compared with games.

Unfortunately, we could not identify any studies that directly measured oxygen consumption, blood lactate concentrations, or other metabolic parameters during handball matches. This fact, in addition to the limited information on time-motion analyses, prevents researchers and coaches from thoroughly quantifying the physiological demands imposed on handball players and conducting appropriate training regimes accordingly.

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Practical Applications

There are important practical applications from this study that can be applied to different areas of handball training:

  • Physical characteristics: Body size, fat-free mass, and percent of body fat seem to be important factors in physical performance, even within a rather homogenous group of highly skilled athletes. Players with a higher skill level are taller and have a higher fat-free mass. Players with larger hands can grab the ball more tightly, and this fact brings probably the players in a more confident situation to shoot the ball with a higher velocity. The presence of higher muscle mass reflected in the mesomorphic component in women's handball players constitutes a significant advantage to confront the intense body contact during a game. Trainers should take into account some anthropometric data and particularly the hand size during handball talent selection because they tend to be a requirement for future high-level performance.
  • Endurance training: A high aerobic capacity appears to be important to maintain a high level of performance over the 60 minutes of playing time. Aerobic capacity and maximal aerobic power can distinguish between women handball players of different levels: more aerobically resistant players are at a clear advantage during international handball competitions. According to the reviewed studies, a highly developed basic endurance capacity seems to be important to reduce cardiocirculatory demands and to likely optimize handball-specific performance during the matches. However, training stimuli for high-intensity endurance training should be given more attention in the full training season planning instead of training at low intensity.
  • Strength training: Strength and power exercises should be emphasized in conditioning routines to improve the percent of muscle mass and the required levels of maximal explosive strength of the upper and lower extremity muscles, because it should give the whole team an advantage to sustain the forceful muscle contractions required during some handball game actions, such as blocking, hitting, pushing, jumping, sprint performance, and throwing velocity. Those characteristics have been shown to differentiate players of different performance levels.
  • Running speed: The relationship between running velocity, muscular power of the knee extensor muscle, and throwing velocity emphasize the importance of increasing the time dedicated to sprint training and leg muscular strength but should be accompanied by a decrease in the total of the physical training volume and be specific to the actual demands of women team handball. Women handball coaches should design training periodization accordingly. The model where strength training had priority in the first part of the training period, followed by a period where sprint and endurance training had priority, seems to be able to increase both maximal oxygen uptake and maximal running velocity in women's handball players.
  • Throwing velocity: “Regular” handball training alone might lead to increases in throwing velocity over time. This specific throwing training might lead to even greater increases in combination with traditional resistance training. Resistance training induces improvements in muscle velocity and power during submaximal-load bench press and parallel squat actions. In addition, specific overloading throwing exercises using variably weighted handballs and core stability training routines should be performed.
  • Time-motion analysis is an effective method of quantifying the demands of team handball and provides a conceptual framework for the specific physical preparation of players. An effective and efficient training regime should be based on a time-motion analysis and should include intermittent drills in which handball players have to perform different motions with different paths and movements at the highest intensity possible, followed by lower intensity periods, all according to the specific demands of each playing position.
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Future Research Needs

Besides the conclusions applicable to women's handball players training, we have drawn some future research needs: There is a need for more experimental studies. The most part of the reviewed studies were of descriptive nature and did not include intervention programs. There is a lack of research on the effectiveness of different types of aerobic training regimes for the improvement of aerobic performance in women's handball. There is a clear need for more research on strength training in women handball players. Studies focusing on the effects of different strength training regimes on handball-specific performance factors such as running speed or throwing velocity, alone or in combination with endurance training programs are of particularly great importance. More studies are needed to quantify physiological loads on women handball players. These studies should use time-motion analyses, focusing on specific handball actions such as jumping, running, walking, or throwing in combination with on-court oxygen consumption and other metabolic parameter measurements during matches and training sessions.

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      Keywords:

      anthropometric characteristics; sports performance; throwing velocity; on-court performance

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