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Original Research

Physical Demands in Competitive Ultimate Frisbee

Krustrup, Peter1,2; Mohr, Magni3,4

Author Information
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: December 2015 - Volume 29 - Issue 12 - p 3386-3391
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000989
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Ultimate Frisbee is one of the fastest growing sports in the world, with millions of players across North America, Europe, and Asia (34). The game is played on a soccer-sized pitch with 7 players on each team. To date, no scientific research has been conducted on the physical demands of ultimate Frisbee during match play. In other team sports, such as football (4), team handball (27), basketball (30), rugby (11), field hockey (21), and Australian football (3), detailed information has been obtained from match analysis demonstrating that these sports comprise intense intermittent activities.

In team sports, numerous activity changes take place (4,274,27), including a high number of intense accelerations, decelerations, changes of direction, and jumps (11,21,29,3311,21,29,3311,21,29,3311,21,29,33), which are very energetically demanding. Thus, cardiovascular loading has been shown to be high in team sports (4,7,15,25,274,7,15,25,274,7,15,25,274,7,15,25,274,7,15,25,27). Moreover, in comparable team sports, such as soccer, fatigue has been shown to develop temporarily both during (24) and in the final stages of a game because both high-intensity running during the final 15-minute period and postgame repeated sprint performance are compromised (20,24,2520,24,2520,24,25). In ultimate Frisbee, the pitch size is similar to that of a soccer pitch, but the game is played by 7 vs. 7 players, compared with 11 vs. 11 in soccer, suggesting a high level of physical demands. Indeed, studies have demonstrated that large pitch size and small number of players can increase the work rate (1). Ultimate Frisbee is suggested to involve a large amount of high-intensity running, which may induce fatigue during and after a game. Thus, the capacity to perform high-intensity intermittent exercise may be highly important for game performance in ultimate Frisbee.

The Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test levels 1 and 2 (Yo-Yo IR1 and IR2) have been demonstrated to predict high-intensity running in total toward the end and during the most intense periods of a soccer game (5,6,255,6,255,6,25), as well as physical match performance in other team sports (9,12,14,269,12,14,269,12,14,269,12,14,26) and physiological characteristics of team sport athletes (13). Moreover, the Yo-Yo IR tests have been shown to be sensitive for detecting effects of training (5,65,6). However, the relationship between Yo-Yo IR scores and ultimate Frisbee physical match performance is currently unknown.

Thus, the aims of the study were to assess activity profiles, fatigue patterns, and cardiovascular loading during an ultimate Frisbee game, as well as to examine the relationship between training status and physical match performance. We hypothesized that (a) ultimate Frisbee match play is a highly intermittent sport with high cardiovascular loading and multiple repetitions of high-intensity running; (b) high-intensity running is lowered toward the end of a game; and (c) physical match performance is associated with the capacity to perform intense intermittent exercise as evaluated by the Yo-Yo intermittent recovery tests.


Experimental Approach to the Problem

Activity pattern and heart rate (HR) were assessed during an official ultimate Frisbee game. The training status of the players was determined using the Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test levels 1 and 2 (Yo-Yo IR1 and IR2, respectively) performed in a recovered state on separate days.


Fifteen members of the University of Exeter Ultimate Frisbee Club volunteered to take part in the study (age: 20.5 ± 0.8 [range, 19–22] years; height: 176.0 ± 3.9 cm; body mass 70.4 ± 5.6 kg). The sample size was chosen based on power calculation from the primary end point (distance covered in different speed thresholds and time spent in different HR zones) using similar parameters from comparable studies in other team and racquet sports (7,8,10,12,14,24,25,327,8,10,12,14,24,25,327,8,10,12,14,24,25,327,8,10,12,14,24,25,327,8,10,12,14,24,25,327,8,10,12,14,24,25,327,8,10,12,14,24,25,327,8,10,12,14,24,25,32). The study was conducted half-way through the season. Before commencement of the study, the participants gave their written informed consent. The study conforms to the code of ethics of the Declaration of Helsinki and was approved and performed in compliance with the human subject guidelines of the Ethics Committee at the University of Exeter. Because of injuries that occurred during the game, analysis was conducted using data from 13 participants.


The game was played at 1800 hours at 18° C. The rules of the sport state that when the clock reaches full time, play continues until one of the team's scores. The first half therefore lasted 28 minutes and the second half 27 minutes and 13 seconds. The two-halves were separated by an 8-minute half-time period. This is the standard length of a university-level game. The participants completed a 10-minute warm-up consisting of jogging, high-intensity running, and dynamic stretches. A week before the match, the participants performed the Yo-Yo intermittent recovery tests, Yo-Yo IR1 (17) and Yo-Yo IR2 (19), according to standard procedures (6). Both tests are intermittent shuttle run (2 × 20 m) test, where the running intervals are interspersed by a 10-second active recovery period (6). Heart rate was recorded during the Yo-Yo IR1 and IR2 tests to determine maximum heart rate (HRmax) (5). All testing took place on the rubber crumb pitch. The players were familiarized with all testing procedures before the study (5).

Heart rate was used to measure and evaluate the cardiovascular loading during the game. The participants wore HR monitors (Polar Electro, Kempele, Finland) during the match. Five intensity zones were defined: <75% (low), 75–80% (moderate), 80–85% (moderate-high), 85–90% (high), and >90% (very high) of individual HRmax (4), as determined from the Yo-Yo IR tests.

The players' movements during the match were recorded using portable GPS devices (SPI PRO X II; GPSports, Canberra, Australia; see Ref. 28). The devices receive signals from at least 3 satellites, which allows the receiver to calculate and record data on position and speed with a time resolution of 15 Hz. Five speed zones were established: stationary walking (0–3.9 km·h−1), jogging (4.0–7.9 km·h−1), quick running (8.0–13.9 km·h−1), high-intensity running (14.0–22.0 km·h−1), and sprinting (≥22 km·h−1). The speed zones and categories are comparable with those used in previous studies in other sports (8,288,28).

Statistical Analyses

Standard statistical methods were used to find the mean values and SDs. Repeated-measures analyses of variance were used to evaluate differences in total game distance traveled, high-intensity running, and sprinting between the six 9-minute game periods, as well as selected 5-minute periods. Regression analyses were performed to study the relationship between test scores in Yo-Yo IR1 and Yo-Yo IR2 and match running performance. All statistical analyses were conducted using SPSS (SPSS, Inc., Chicago, IL, USA). The statistical significance was set at p ≤ 0.05.


Match Running Performance

The total match distance covered was 4.70 ± 0.47 km (range, 3.85–5.22), of which low-intensity running, high-intensity running, and sprinting accounted for 3.49 ± 0.35 km, 0.63 ± 0.14 km, and 0.21 ± 0.11 km, respectively. During the 54-minute match, players were active for 26.4 ± 4.9 minutes, and the remaining 27.6 ± 4.9 minutes was accounted for by breaks (no activity) between points (24.7 minutes) and substitutions (2.9 ± 4.9 minutes).

In the second half, 15% less distance was covered by low-intensity running and 10% less distance by high-intensity running compared with the first half (p ≤ 0.05; Figure 1). No difference was observed between the first and second halves in terms of distance sprinted (Figure 1). The distance covered by high-intensity running was 43–47% less in the last 9 minutes of each half compared with the other two 9-minute periods of the respective half (Figure 2). Similarly, the distance covered by sprinting was 50–61% less in the last 9 minutes of each half compared with the other two 9-minute periods (0.02 ± 0.02 km vs. 0.04 ± 0.04 km to 0.05 ± 0.03 km and 0.02 ± 0.02 km vs. 0.04 ± 0.03 km to 0.04 ± 0.03 km). The peak distance covered by high-intensity running in a 5-minute period was 93 ± 16 m (65–113). There was no difference between the next 5-minute period and the average of the remaining 5-minute intervals (51 ± 19 m vs. 52 ± 13 m). Players performed 17.4 ± 5.7 sprints during the match, with an average recovery time of 226 ± 113 seconds between sprints. The peak sprinting distance was 32.2 ± 8.2 m (21.1–44.7), corresponding to 5.5 ± 1.2 seconds (4.3–7.3). Peak sprinting speed was 28.1 ± 2.2 km·h−1 (23.1–30.5 km·h−1). Average sprint distance was 12.0 ± 3.1 m (9.2–15.2), corresponding to an average duration of 2.1 ± 0.5 seconds, respectively.

Figure 1
Figure 1:
Distance covered by low-intensity running, high-intensity running, and sprinting during the first half (black) and second half (white) (mean ± σ
Figure 1
). *Significant difference (p ≤ 0.05) between the first and second half.
Figure 2
Figure 2:
Distance covered in 9-minute periods by high-intensity running (mean ± σ
Figure 1
). *Significant difference (p ≤ 0.05) from the two first 9-minute period of that half.

Cardiovasular Loading

Average and peak HR reached during the game were 160 ± 6 b·min−1 and 192 ± 6 b·min−1, respectively, corresponding to 82 ± 2% and 99 ± 1% of HRmax, respectively. Of the 54 minutes of game time, 26.6 ± 5.0 minutes was spent above 90% HRmax and 6.6 ± 3.8 minutes below 75% HRmax (Table 1).

Table 1
Table 1:
Mean, range, and percentage time spent within each heart rate zone during the match.*


A strong correlation was observed between the Yo-Yo IR2 performance of 657 ± 225 m (360–1080) and the amount of high-intensity running in the last 9 minutes of both halves (r = 0.69, p ≤ 0.05; Figure 3A). The correlation between Yo-Yo IR2 performances and high-intensity running in the initial two 9-minute periods was weak and nonsignificant (r = 0.31). No correlation was observed between Yo-Yo IR2 performance and peak high-intensity running in a 5-minute period (r = 0.04). There was a strong correlation between the Yo-Yo IR1 performance of 1790 ± 382 m (1200–2520) and the total distance sprinted (r = 0.74, p ≤ 0.05; Figure 3B). The correlation between Yo-Yo IR1 performance and total distance, low-intensity distance, and high-intensity distance covered was moderate but nonsignificant (r = 0.40, 0.41, and 0.43, respectively). No significant correlation was observed between HR and match activity profile parameters (r = 0.07–0.12).

Figure 3
Figure 3:
Relationship between the amount of high-intensity running in the final 9 minutes of both halves (x-axis) and Yo-Yo intermittent recovery level 2 test performance (Yo-Yo IR2, y-axis) (p ≤ 0.05) (A). Relationship between the distance sprinted in a full match (x-axis) and Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test performance (Yo-Yo IR1, y-axis) (p ≤ 0.05) (B).


This study is the first to examine the activity profile and cardiovascular loading during a competitive game of ultimate Frisbee. The study verifies the hypotheses that (a) ultimate Frisbee is a high-intensity intermittent sport with large amounts of high-intensity running and sprinting and a high cardiovascular loading with HRs >90 of HRmax for more than half of the game; (b) work rate was compromised during the last part of each half, indicating fatigue development; and (c) physical fitness, determined by an intermittent running test, was associated with the ability to perform intense work during a game.

This study showed that total distance covered, high-intensity running distance, and sprint distance were approximately 4.7, 0.6, and 0.2 km, respectively, during a full ultimate Frisbee game, which is less than reported during high-level football games using GPS technology (25,2825,28). However, the duration of a football game is almost twice that of an ultimate Frisbee game, which gives only slightly less distance covered per time unit. Indeed, the players covered 95 m·min−1 during the ultimate Frisbee game (excluding time spent as substitutes), compared with 105–110 m·min−1 during a football match (24,2524,25). Similar differences exist between ultimate Frisbee and competitive hockey (21). However, the distance covered in total by high-intensity running and sprinting is greater during an ultimate Frisbee game than, for example, during a team handball game (22,2722,27), despite quite similar playing time and ∼20 m·min−1 more than data reported from rugby match play (29). As in other team sports, multiple and very short sprints and high-intensity runs were performed (2.1 for 2.4 seconds on average), interspersed with periods of little or no activity. Thus, ultimate Frisbee has a basic movement profile similar to that of other team sports.

In this study, the ultimate Frisbee athletes had an average HR of 82% of maximum and spent more than 40% of the playing time with an HR higher than 90% of maximum. In addition, the players reached a peak HR during the game of 99% of the maximum measured during the 2 Yo-Yo IR tests. Thus, the cardiovascular loading of an ultimate Frisbee game is very high and at a similar or even higher level to that found in other team sports, such as football (4,18,254,18,254,18,25), futsal (7), beach football (15), and team handball (27), as well as racquet sports (10). An interesting finding in this study was that the range of cardiovascular loading was surprisingly small. For example, the range of average and peak HR loading was only 79–85% and 98–100%, respectively, which seems smaller than in other team sports, such as football (18,2518,25). The large field relative to the number of players may partly force all players to maintain continuously high exercise intensity, but the nature of the game may also play a role. For example, there are few stoppages related to free kicks/throw-ins and penalties as in football, team handball, and basketball, and the success rate for passes is markedly higher (88%). In addition, 11 of the 13 players either scored goals or provided assists. A game of ultimate Frisbee therefore has a high level of involvement of all players in the team, which apparently reduces the interplayer variability in aerobic loading.

Fatigue patterns in team sport have received special attention in recent years. In this study, 15 and 10% less distance was covered in the second half by low- and high-intensity running, respectively. This is in line with findings for other team sports, such as football (24,2524,25), Australian football (2,32,3), and team handball (22). In this study, the two-halves were separated into one-third periods lasting approximately 9 minutes. This demonstrated that high-intensity running and sprinting were lowered by 43–47% and 50–61%, respectively, in the last 9-minute period of each half compared with the previous 2 periods. Thus, the lowered amount of high-intensity running and sprinting could indicate fatigue development at the end of each half, which has been shown in, for example, elite football (18,3318,33). Also, the fact that there is no difference in sprinting distance between halves but a significant decrement during the final third of each half suggests that the 8-minute half-time period was sufficient to recover for the first part of the second half.

No difference was found in high-intensity running between the 5-minute period after the peak 5-minute period and the 5-minute average high-intensity running, indicating no temporary fatigue in contrast to other team sports, such as football (24,2524,25). However, the vast majority of the players had their most intense 5-minute period (with most high-intensity running) during the first two-thirds of each half and their least intense 5-minute period (with least high-intensity running) of the game during the final third of each half (data not shown), which also is supported by findings in elite football players (24). Thus, it seems that ultimate Frisbee players are unable to maintain the high work rate, and especially the most intense game sequences, during the final periods of each half. The observation that the players seem to be able to recover during the half-time rest indicates that the physiological mechanisms provoking fatigue during the last part of at least the first half are related to systems with a fast recovery. Disturbances in the muscle resting membrane potential induced by changes in muscle ion fluxes may therefore be proposed as a potential cause of fatigue, as suggested for other intense intermittent activities (17,19,20,2317,19,20,2317,19,20,2317,19,20,23).

It was demonstrated that Yo-Yo IR2 test performance correlated with high-intensity running during the final third of each half. Thus, the ability to perform intense intermittent exercise during the last stage of each half is highly related to training status. In previous work on elite footballers, we have shown that Yo-Yo IR performance correlated with high-intensity running distance during the last part of a game in women (18) and men (25). The Yo-Yo IR2 test has a markedly anaerobic component (19), and hence, the above-mentioned relationship indicates that anaerobic capacity is crucial for resisting fatigue in the last part of each half. Moreover, Yo-Yo IR1 test scores also correlated with total sprint distance, as also confirmed by studies on football match play (17) and team handball games (31). The Yo-Yo IR1 test has a more aerobic nature than the Yo-Yo IR2 test, and this finding indicates and confirms findings by others on the importance of aerobic capacity for the ability to perform repeated sprints (16).

This is the first study addressing the physical demands in ultimate Frisbee. The main limitation of the study is the relativity low sample size because normally, there is interplayer variability in physical capacity and playing position, as well as variations related to time in the season and level of competition in similar team sports (24). In addition, only 1 game was studied and the effect of intergame variability may have affected the results. Moreover, HR is the only physiological measurement, and therefore, limited information is obtained on the loading of the anaerobic energy systems. Thus, future studies should focus on match analysis on more players representing different standards of play and different playing positions. Moreover, invasive measurements should be obtained to investigate the anaerobic contribution and potential mechanisms provoking the fatigue described in this study.

In conclusion, the hypotheses were verified that ultimate Frisbee match play involves many intense running activities and results in high aerobic loading. Furthermore, it was verified that the amount of high-intensity running is decreased toward the end of each half, indicating fatigue development and that intermittent exercise capacity correlates with the running performance of the players during ultimate Frisbee match play.

Practical Applications

Ultimate Frisbee is an intense intermittent noncontact sport with a very high loading of the aerobic system. The activity pattern has numerous similarities with other team sports. Thus, the game can also be used as an off-season training method in team sports and as a recreational fitness activity for the general population. Fatigue occurs toward the end of each half, and intense intermittent exercise performance correlates with match performance. High-intensity intermittent training regimes, such as aerobic high-intensity training and speed endurance training, should therefore be given high priority in the physical preparation of ultimate Frisbee athletes.


The authors thank the participants and their club for their participation, committed effort, and professional attitude. The technical assistance of Joe Moriarty, Daniel Speller, and Sarah Jackman is also greatly appreciated. Moreover, the grammatical advice from Henrik Holm Andersen, Copenhagen Translation, is acknowledged. No external funding was received for the study.


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GPS; heart rate; intermittent exercise; Yo-Yo IR testing; high-intensity exercise

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