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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:Copyright © 2014 by the National Strength & Conditioning Association.
time motion analysis; heart rate; intermittent exercise; professional top male handball players; specific positions