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Physiological Demands of Elite Team Handball With Special Reference to Playing Position

Póvoas, Susana C. A.1,2; Ascensão, António A. M. R.3; Magalhães, José3; Seabra, André F.3; Krustrup, Peter4,5; Soares, José M. C.6; Rebelo, António N. C.6

Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: February 2014 - Volume 28 - Issue 2 - p 430–442
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182a953b1
Original Research
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Póvoas, SCA, Ascensão, AAMR, Magalhães, J, Seabra, AF, Krustrup, P, Soares, JMC, and Rebelo, ANC. Physiological demands of elite team handball with special reference to playing position. J Strength Cond Res 28(2): 430–442, 2014—This study aimed to analyze the physiological demands of match play for different playing positions in elite male team handball. Time motion (N = 30) and heart rate (HR; N = 70) data were recorded throughout 10 official matches. The mean distance covered by backcourt players (4.96 ± 0.64 km) was greater (p ≤ 0.02) than for wings and pivots (4.23 ± 0.52 and 3.91 ± 0.51 km, respectively). Backcourt players spent less time standing still and walking (∼76%) than wings and pivots (∼80%) (p ≤ 0.03), and wings spent more time sprinting than the other playing positions. Backcourt players (122.9 ± 17.0) and pivots (126.8 ± 33.0) performed more high-demanding actions per game than wings (54.6 ± 15.6) (p = 0.01). The time spent by pivots in high-intensity activities decreased from the first to the second half (4.1 ± 2.4 to 2.7 ± 0.9%; p ≤ 0.01), while backcourt players showed a decrease in high-demanding playing actions (p ≤ 0.05). Backcourt players and pivots had higher mean (84 ± 9 and 83 ± 9% vs. 79 ± 10%; p ≤ 0.03) and peak effective HR, and percentage of total time at intensities >80% maximal HR (HRmax) than wings. The fraction of total time spent at intensities >80% HRmax decreased for all outfield playing positions in the second half (from 39–76 to 30–46%). Competitive team handball involves position-specific differences in the physiological demands. Furthermore, exercise intensity decreases from the first to the second half for all outfield playing positions suggesting that these players experience neuromuscular fatigue. Training of elite handball players should comprise high-intensity position-specific exercises aiming at improving the ability to maintain a high exercise intensity throughout the game.

1Research Center in Sports, Health Sciences and Human Development, Vila Real, Portugal;

2Maia Institute of Higher Education, Research Center in Sport and Physical Activity, Maia, Portugal;

3Research Center in Physical Activity, Health and Leisure, Faculty of Sport, University of Porto, Porto, Portugal;

4Sport and Health Sciences, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, United Kingdom;

5Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports, Copenhagen Center for Team Sport and Health, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark; and

6Center of Research, Education, Innovation and Intervention in Sport, Faculty of Sport, University of Porto, Porto, Portugal

Address correspondence to Susana C.A. Póvoas, spovoas@docentes.ismai.pt.

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Introduction

Team handball is played professionally in many European countries. Despite being an Olympic sport since 1972, and one of the most popular team sports for men worldwide, scientific knowledge regarding the physiological demands in elite team handball is scarce. Time motion and heart rate (HR) analyses of handball players during games have shown considerable variation among players (19). As position-related demands might contribute to this variation, specific positions of the players should be considered in the analysis. In fact, previous studies found differences between playing positions regarding the total distance covered and the distance covered at different locomotor categories (15,24). Nevertheless, no studies so far have investigated in detail the activity profile of elite male handball throughout official matches for different playing positions, 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 offensive and defensive play. These are actually critical actions for the game implying elevated energy and mechanical demands for the players (18). In addition, the tactical-technical demands in handball matches differ between the main phases of the game (attack vs. defense) among different playing positions. Thus, it is expected that activity profiles would also be different between these phases. Moreover, the official rules of team handball were changed in 2000, which increased the intensity of the game (3,9,10). Nonetheless, to the best of our knowledge, no study has been published concerning position-related handball time motion characteristics after the rule changes.

Handball is considered a complex and highly demanding intermittent sport, as it involves multiple high-intensity runs (19,24), frequent body contacts, and several other high-intensity actions. The ability to intermittently perform maximal short-duration activities during games is crucial to obtain a high level of performance in team sports (21). However, 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 of periods that intersperse these activities, which is of critical importance to better develop training exercises aiming at improving handball-specific physical capacities. On the other hand, handball involves frequent body contact and several high-intensity actions as part of match play, which is not well represented in time motion data. In this regard, 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, leading to a misinterpretation of the overall physical performance of the players. Accordingly, to better characterize the demands of the game, it would be useful to combine the 2 analyses. Therefore, the purpose of the present study was to analyze the physical and physiological demands of elite male handball players during matches according to their specific playing position. We hypothesize that team handball players will show position-related differences in high-intensity activities and also in power-related actions during the match such as sprints, stops, turns, and changes of direction that possibly lead to a differential 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 appropriate physical tests that consider specific team handball playing positions.

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Methods

Experimental Approach to the Problem

In this study, individual maximal HR (HRmax) of top professional league handball players of different playing positions was determined during the Yo-Yo intermittent endurance test–level 2 (5) using Polar Team System (Polar Electro Oy, Kempele, Finland). The players also performed an incremental treadmill (Quasar-Med, Nussdorf, Germany) test (17) until voluntary exhaustion to determine peak oxygen consumption. Expired respiratory gas fractions were measured using an open circuit breath-by-breath automated gas-analysis system (Metalyzer 3B; Cortex, Leipzig, Germany). To examine the activity pattern and physiological demands of the handball match, individual HR was monitored during official matches, which were video filmed for time motion analysis. At the time of the evaluations, the players were in the middle of their competitive season, performing 6–7 training sessions per week and were previously familiarized with all test protocols. Body mass and fluid loss, environmental temperature, and humidity values were recorded during matches. Time motion and HR analyses were performed on 30 outfield male players (10 of each outfield playing position: wings, backcourt players, and pivots), and HR analyses were additionally performed on 10 goalkeepers. Weight and percentage of body fat were measured using Tanita Inner Scan digital-BC532 (Tanita, Amsterdam, The Netherlands).

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Subjects

A total of 40 elite male players participated in the study (10 of each playing position: wings, backcourt players, pivots, and goalkeepers). Anthropometric and physiological characteristics of the players according to playing position 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 subjects were previously informed of the aims and the experimental risks of the study and subsequently provided 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.

Table 1

Table 1

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Procedures

Match Time Motion Analysis

The players were video filmed during 10 entire official matches from the top Portuguese handball professional league to establish game motion patterns according to the methods previously described (19). Briefly, players' displacements were coded into 8 locomotor categories: (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. High-intensity activities equaled the sum of categories d, e, and h and low-intensity activities were the sum of categories a, b, c, f, and g. 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. 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 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. Because this study aimed to describe the demands of a playing position, data were collected from the playing position and not from individual players (27), which means that when a player was substituted, the camera filmed the substitute.

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Heart Rate

Seventy HR recordings of 40 players (27 wings, 23 backcourt players, 10 pivots, and 10 goalkeepers) 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. Definitions and procedures regarding HR analysis are described elsewhere (19); although, in this study, only effective relative HR (i.e., HR during the time in which the player is inside the playing court) is presented, as comparisons are made between different players. The matches were held in the middle of the competitive season, between 4 and 8 PM and in standard environmental conditions (temperature 17–21° C and humidity 50–70%). Participants were asked to refrain from additional vitamin dietary supplementation, ergogenic supplements, and alcoholic beverages and not to introduce appreciable deviations from their normal eating habits during the evaluation period. For the determination of effective time spent in each HR zone, only the values corresponding to the first and second halves were considered.

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Fluid Loss and Intake

Because dehydration and hyperthermia during a match can influence HR values (11), changes in body mass and fluid loss were recorded for all players. To determine sweat loss during a match, the players were weighed 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) during the match were calculated according to Andersson et al. (2).

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Measurement Reliability

Reliability of all variables was estimated using a test-retest procedure after 7 days, with a random sub-sample of 12 subjects (4 of each playing position). The reliability of the anthropometric measurements was determined by the coefficient of variation (<5%), whereas the intraclass correlation coefficient was used for the time motion and physiological variables (R > 0.80).

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Statistical Analyses

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 independent t-test. Differences between playing positions were determined by 1-way analysis of variance. When a significant difference was detected, post hoc analysis was performed using the Bonferroni test for multiple comparisons to check for specific differences by playing positions. Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS Inc, version 20.0, IBM, Armonk, NY, USA) was used for all analyses. Statistical significance was set at p ≤ 0.05.

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Results

Activity Profile During Matches

The number of occurrences, total time spent, and distance covered (absolute and relative values) for each locomotor and intensity category of the analyzed outfield playing positions during the match are presented in Table 2. The duration and distance covered in each locomotor category are also shown.

Table 2-a

Table 2-a

Table 2-b

Table 2-b

Match duration was 73 ± 4 minutes, and total distance covered was 4.44 ± 0.70 km. Backcourt players covered 15 and 21%, respectively, more (p ≤ 0.02) total distance than wings and pivots (4.96 ± 0.64 vs. 4.23 ± 0.52 and 3.91 ± 0.51 km), whereas wings covered the highest relative distances and spent the highest time in high-intensity activities (p ≤ 0.01). Backcourt players (122.9 ± 17.0) and pivots (126.8 ± 33.0) performed more physically demanding playing actions per game than wings (54.6 ± 15.6) (p < 0.001) (Table 3). Backcourt players showed a higher number of jumps, throws, and changes of direction (p ≤ 0.02), whereas pivots performed more one-on-one situations in the attack and in total match time (p ≤ 0.01). Locomotor profile of the different playing positions in both halves of the match is presented in Figure 1.

Table 3

Table 3

Figure 1

Figure 1

Pivots spent less time conducting high-intensity activities in the second half of matches (4.1 ± 2.4 vs. 2.7 ± 0.9%; p ≤ 0.01), and backcourt players showed a decrease in several high-demanding playing actions (p ≤ 0.05) in the second half of matches (Table 3).

In the attack phase, wings spent the highest fraction of total match time executing high-intensity activities (3.7 ± 1.1 vs. 2.9 ± 1.9 vs. 2.0 ± 0.8%; p ≤ 0.03, for wings, backcourt, and pivots, respectively; Figure 2). No significant differences were observed in the defense phase (5.1 ± 2.0 vs. 3.5 ± 2.1 vs. 4.6 ± 2.2%; p ≤ 0.03, wings, backcourt, and pivots, respectively). Pivots spent 2-fold more time performing high-intensity activities in the defensive phase than in the offensive phase (4.6 ± 2.2 vs. 2.0 ± 0.8%; p < 0.001).

Figure 2

Figure 2

For all outfield playing positions, in 60% of the occurrences, the time between maximal intensity activities was >90 seconds, and 48–63% of the recovery periods included low-intensity activities (Figure 3). In almost half of the recovery time, the players were standing still, with backcourt players reporting the lowest values (p < 0.01). The time between high-intensity activities was frequently <30 or ≥90 seconds. No position-dependent differences were observed in the time intervals distribution separating both maximal and high-intensity activities.

Figure 3

Figure 3

In both halves, there were no significant differences in the time between maximal intensity activities in all outfield playing positions. Additionally, only recovery periods between 30 and 60 seconds showed a significant decrease in the second half for backcourt players (20.5 ± 13.0 vs. 17.4 ± 6.5%; p = 0.04). Also, the activity pattern between maximal intensity activities did not show significant differences between both halves of the match in any of the analyzed playing positions.

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Match Heart Rate Analysis

Wings had mean (79 ± 10% HRmax) and peak (95 ± 4% HRmax) HR values lower than backcourt players (84 ± 9 and 96 ± 4% HRmax) and pivots (83 ± 9 and 98 ± 2% HRmax) (p < 0.001; Figure 4). During the second half, mean HR decreased for backcourt players and pivots and increased for the goalkeepers (p ≤ 0.01) when compared with the first half. Goalkeepers present the lowest mean and peak HR values during the match (70 ± 11 and 90 ± 7% HRmax) (p < 0.001; Figure 4).

Figure 4

Figure 4

Backcourt players and pivots spent the highest fraction of effective match time (>53%) in intensities >80% HRmax (p ≤ 0.01; Figure 5). The percentage of effective match time spent by the goalkeepers in this HR zone was 31–58% lower than for the outfield playing positions (p ≤ 0.01). The percentage of effective match time spent in different HR zones for both halves and for each playing position is presented in Figure 5.

Figure 5

Figure 5

The percentage of time spent at exercise intensities >80% HRmax decreased during the second half for all outfield playing positions (Figure 5; p ≤ 0.03). The opposite was observed for the goalkeepers.

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Fluid Loss and Intake

The body mass loss during the matches was 0.8 ± 0.5 (0.0–1.4 kg) corresponding to 0.9 ± 0.34 (0.0–1.3%) of their body mass, and their fluid intake was 1.2 ± 0.3 (0.6–1.5 L). Thus, the fluid loss during matches was 2.1 ± 0.4 (1.4–2.9 L) corresponding to 2.3 ± 0.4 (1.9–3.1%) of the body mass. No significant differences were observed in these fluid loss endpoints between playing positions.

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Discussion

This study is the first to provide detailed information on the movement patterns and cardiovascular strain of elite male handball players of different playing positions during the 2 halves and different phases of the game. Differences in the motor activity profile and physiological demands of the different playing positions were observed. Backcourt players covered the longest total distances, whereas wings showed the highest fraction of total time spent and distance covered in high-intensity activities. Backcourt players and pivots performed the highest number of high-demanding actions and spent the highest percentage of time at intensities >80% HRmax. Exercise intensity evaluated by both time motion and HR decreased in the second half of the match only for these players, although all outfield players spent less time at intensities >80% HRmax in the second half of the match. In opposition, goalkeepers showed higher HR values in the second half of the match. Position-specific differences were also observed in the activity profile related to defensive and offensive play phases.

In opposition to Sibila et al. (24), but accordingly to Michalsik et al. (15), time motion analysis showed that backcourt players covered the longest total distances, although wings showed the highest fraction of time spent and distance covered in high-intensity activities, in accordance with what was previously reported (15,24). In other intermittent team sports such as soccer, high-intensity running during the match has been suggested as a more accurate and key indicator of the physical stress imposed by the match than the total distance covered (4,13). However, high-intensity running distance does not include high-demanding actions such as jumps, stops, turns, and one-on-one situations, which are stressful conditions imposed that should be recognized as intense moments of the match. Backcourt players and pivots performed double as many high-demanding actions than wings and exercised for longer periods of time at intensities >80% HRmax, which suggests that total distance covered may not be the best indication of game demands for pivots. This might be related to the fact that pivots perform a considerable amount of high-intensity work during the match without covering a great distance, namely in one-on-one situations as shown by the present data in which pivots performed the highest number of these actions (Table 3). No significant differences were observed between the outfield playing positions in the time spent and distance covered in low-intensity activities, in opposition to observations from other team sports (6).

Wings showed the highest number and length of sprints, a fact that is probably related to their position on the playing court. The handball playing area is longer in the outer aisles than the central domain of the court because of the design of the goal areas, enabling wing players to cover larger distances. Additionally, wings are also frequently involved in fast breaks that might also account for the highest amount of high-intensity work, namely sprints, performed by these players during the match (Table 2).

Sideways movements occurred more frequently and accounted for a greater fraction of total time in backcourt players and pivots (Table 2) in opposition to previous studies that have reported no differences between playing positions in this locomotion category (15). When analyzing only the defensive phase, in which these types of movements are more frequently performed (19), backcourt players and pivots spent twice as much time with sideways-medium intensity movements than wings. Backcourt players and pivots are often required to play in the center of the defensive systems in which the frequency of these events are high, but the distance to be covered is low, whereas wings often defend in the outer positions or in front of the defense, where the distance to be covered is higher.

Differences were found between the playing positions in the specific time motion categories of the defensive and offensive phases of the handball match. As in previous studies (15), wings spent the greatest proportion of total match time in high-intensity activities in the attack phase, which, as aforementioned, may be related to number of sprints performed during the fast breaks. Regardless of the distinct defensive playing actions between backcourt and pivot players and wings, and in opposition to Michalsik et al. (15), no significant differences were observed in the defense phase between the outfield playing positions in this intensity category. Backcourt players spent less time standing in the attack phase, when compared with pivots, who performed most of the offensive work without covering long distances, and wings, who were usually stationary while waiting for a scoring opportunity near the outer goal line. During the defensive phase, wings spent twice as much time with backwards running, which may be related to the initial phase of the defense, when trying to stop a fast break of the opponents. In the offensive phase, pivots spent one-third of the total match time with backwards running, which is much more than the other outfield players. This is probably a consequence of pivots operating frequently in the core of the opposite team defensive system placed backwards to the goal area. Pivots spent twice as much time with high-intensity activities in the defensive phase than in the offensive phase, which highlights the importance of this playing position in the defensive phase. Maximal intensity activities were frequently interspersed by periods frequently lasting longer than 90 seconds, and more than half of the recovery periods were of active nature (Figure 3), which is known to accelerate recovery between short duration, high-intensity exercises (25). Nonetheless, for almost half of the recovery time, the players were standing still, although backcourt players showed the lowest values. This may be because of the fact that backcourt players both in the attack and defensive playing phases (especially, during the organized phase) play in the central area of the playing court, with a higher frequency of ball and player movements. Although pivots also operate in this area, the above-mentioned specificity of their actions, particularly in the attack phase, can differentiate them from backcourt players.

No studies have so far analyzed the cardiovascular demands in handball considering the playing positions. Heart rate measurement is a commonly used method to estimate exercise intensity (14,20,23), despite the known variation in HR attributed to several intrinsic and extrinsic factors (1,8). 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. Although, this distinction is important to address when analyzing data, since we are comparing playing positions, only data regarding effective HR were presented. Goalkeepers clearly present distinct values compared with outfield players, which is in accordance with time motion data (24). Backcourt players and pivots showed the highest average HR values and percentage of total match time at intensities >80% HRmax. Backcourt players also covered the highest distances in the match, followed by wings and pivots. This shows that the isolated evaluation of distances covered at different speeds may not be the most suitable method for describing the match intensity, particularly for pivots. In fact, accompanying information from high-demanding playing actions showed that both pivots and backcourt players performed the highest number of these actions during the match. Therefore, a more sensitive marker of physical demands may be needed to accurately determine the intensity of work during match play for pivot position players. The notion that measurements of HR and movement pattern can be used complementary is supported by the observation that wings showed the highest distance covered and time spent in high-intensity activities, but the lowest average HR values and percentage of total match time at intensities >80% HRmax of all outfield playing positions.

Time motion analyses and HR data showed that the exercise intensity decreased in the second half of the match only for backcourt players and pivots, which may be because of the fact that these players performed the highest number of high-demanding actions and spent the highest percentage of time at intensities >80% HRmax, contributing to increased neuromuscular fatigue. A decrease in exercise intensity in the second half, evaluated as lowered HRs, and less high-intensity running and total distance covered, has also been reported in other field sports such as soccer (6,7,12,16,22,26,28). In opposition, goalkeepers showed higher HR values in the second half of the match. Considering that fluid loss did not differ between game halves (data not shown) and that fatigue does not occur for goalkeepers during the game because of the extended recovery times between actions, other noncontrolled/evaluated influencing factors might be present in the second half that contribute to explain this finding. 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.

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Practical Applications

The present study shows that physical performance and HR response and, therefore, the physical and physiological demands of the players during a handball match are highly dependent on the positional role within the team. Specific locomotor high-demanding actions and HR profile during the match provide combined useful information for better characterizing the demands of the game for each playing position. The decrement in performance observed in the second half of the match differentiates between playing positions. Hence, training strategies should consider intense position-specific exercises aiming at improving the ability of the players to sustain high exercise intensities throughout the game. It is also possible that the results obtained could be useful in the future design of physical tests to specifically evaluate the performance of handball players in different playing positions.

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Acknowledgments

We thankfully acknowledge to all the elite handball players and coaches who participated in this study. We also thank Luke Conolly for editing the manuscript. No sources of funding were used to assist in the preparation of this manuscript. The results of the present study do not reflect any endorsement by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. S. C. A. Póvoas, A. A. M. R. Ascensão, and J. 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).

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Keywords:

time motion analysis; heart rate; intermittent exercise; professional top male handball players; specific positions

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