In our previous post, we introduced multi-directional speed (MDS) and provided a brief overview of its components. Although MDS may be seen as a global concept, the classification of sub-components (e.g., acceleration, maximum velocity sprinting, cutting, pivoting, deceleration, curved sprinting, agility actions) allows us to break down and isolate the specific biomechanical, physiological and neurocognitive requirements of each task, enabling a more precise application of targeted training methods. The following article will discuss how to apply a theoretical understanding of each MDS component to support the programming of MDS training within a team sport microcycle. Sports science and medicine practitioners are becoming increasingly more aware of the need to expose their team sport athletes to regular sprint practise within the training week from both performance and injury risk mitigation perspectives. We challenge the readers to go one step further and consider the nuances of speed training, ensuring that their athletes are prepared for the multi-directional speed demands of their training and competition
Components of Multi-Directional Speed
Acceleration can be considered the foundational component of skilful sprinting. Given the majority of sprinting efforts occur within 20 m in team sport match play (Di-Salvo et al., 2010; Gabbett, 2012), the ability to accelerate should be seen as a key focus in MDS training. High rates of acceleration are achieved by the application of large, rapid, and effective horizontal propulsive forces directed by a horizontally inclined torso and shank angle (Bezodis et al., 2017). As athletes progress through the phases of acceleration, they should strive to maintain an efficient horizontal transmission of these forces over reducing ground contact times (GCTs) (i.e., mechanical effectiveness; Samozino et al., 2016). Conversely, maximum velocity sprinting is characterised by a more upright positioning of the torso and shank to permit the application of a high-magnitude vertically-oriented ground reaction force vector (Clark & Weyand, 2014). In addition, due to greater movement speeds, there is a reduced GCT which limits the time to apply force into the ground; therefore, the rate at which force is produced is fundamental to achieve high propulsive net impulse. Resultantly, in addition to the orientation of the GRF vector, the impulse profiles of early acceleration (e.g., peak resultant GRF ~ 2.3 N∙kg-1; GCT: 200–135 ms) and maximum velocity sprinting (e.g., peak resultant GRF ~ 3.7 N∙kg-1; GCT: 101–108 ms), differ considerably (Wild et al., 2011). Differences are also observed between joint kinetic profiles, whereby acceleration has a bias towards concentric power generation at the ankle, knee and hip, in contrast to the predominant eccentric-concentric coupling at the ankle and knee during maximum velocity sprinting. Crucially, these observations highlight that there are unique kinetic, kinematic, and spatiotemporal characteristics that operate on a continuum, in which the generation and transmission of GRF variables are dependent on the movement velocity, angle and type of MDS manoeuvre (Figure 1; Multidirectional Speed in Youth Soccer Players: Theoretical… : Strength & Conditioning Journal (lww.com)). This has implications for how training methods can be integrated within a holistic training programme, as training themes may be used to compliment certain types of MDS exercises within a weekly microcycle.
From a different perspective, the action of sprinting requires very high levels of muscle activation to generate the high degrees of torque and power required for propulsion, as well as the subsequent deceleration of the swing limb prior to ground contact. In particular, the hamstring muscles can be exposed to forces as high as eight times bodyweight, and thus, undergo significant mechanical loading when sprinting at high-speeds. As such, the action of sprinting inherently poses as an injury risk mechanism for team sport athletes, which is in direct conflict to what is considered a crucial tenet of successful athletic performance in competition. Reducing sprint distances, or to even worse extremes, complete removal of sprint training, from athletic training programmes as a means of mitigating injury risk, would be non-sensical. In fact, sports science and medicine practitioners should feel encouraged to know that it is frequent, well-monitored and progressive exposure to sprinting activity that may provide the ‘antidote’ to this problem (Mendiguchia et al., 2019). Increasingly more evidence is emerging to substantiate these claims, where sprint training has been shown to promote positive architectural shifts to the hamstring musculature which may offer a protective effect against injury (Mendiguchia et al., 2020). Frequent sprint training can modify sprinting technique and promote favourable kinematics that are both conducive to improved performance and alleviate potentially ‘at risk’ postures (Mendiguchia J., 2021). Furthermore, athletes who are regularly exposed (~ 2 sessions per week) to near-maximal sprinting speeds (>95% maximum sprinting speed) and achieve high chronic sprinting loads have been shown to have a lower rate of thigh muscle injuries compared to their less sprint-exposed teammates (Malone et al., 2017). As such, practitioners should view every opportunity in the field as a chance to reinforce the mechanics and technical mastery necessary to maximise MDS performance.
Change of Direction Speed
It has been suggested that change of direction (COD) provides the physical, mechanical and technical basis for effective agility performance, and is underpinned by the interaction between speed, deceleration, mechanics and physical capacity (DosʼSantos, Thomas, et al., 2019). COD is defined as a “reorientation and change in the path of travel of the whole-body centre of mass (COM) towards a new intended direction” with the COD foot plant initiating a clear break in cyclical running. Subsequently, COD can be broken down into four key phases: 1) initial acceleration; 2) preliminary deceleration; 3) COD foot plant; and 4) re-acceleration, which are dependent on the sport-specific scenario, entry velocity, intended angle of COD, athlete’s physical capacity, and neurocognitive qualities. Further, the highly dynamic and contextual nature of team sport match play can vary the type and subsequent demands of COD task, which includes degree of joint loading, whole-body kinetics and kinematics, GRF characteristics, muscle activation, velocity of COM, deceleration and propulsive requirements, technical, and task execution. For instance, a variety of cutting techniques exist (e.g., side-step cuts, crossover cuts, V-cuts, and split-steps) which have unique biomechanical profiles (Figure 1) and may be considered ‘optimal’ depending on the desired movement outcome (DosʼSantos, McBurnie, et al., 2019).
Furthermore, COD is both angle- and velocity-dependent (Dos’Santos et al., 2018), which can regulate the acceleration, foot plant, and deceleration requirements of the task. A shallow side-step cut (<45°) performed at a high approach velocity (>7 m/s-2) will have minimal deceleration and re-accelerations requirements, but there will be far greater multi-planar loading demands placed on the knee joint during the COD foot plant due to the high movement speeds (McBurnie et al., 2019). Conversely, when performing a sharp-angled (>90°) pivot manoeuvre, greater braking is required to decelerate the system’s COM, change inertia and re-accelerate into the new intended direction of travel. When this action is performed effectively, however, the COD foot plant should act predominantly as a ‘propulsive’ step, with braking occurring during the preceding steps, generally in the sagittal plane and over greater knee and hip flexion angles. This braking strategy will not only facilitate faster performance, it will reduce the mechanical loading experienced at the knee joint during the main COD foot plant (i.e., the limb typically injured when changing direction). Resultantly, the MDS profiles of team sport athletes may vary considerably depending on their physical and technical capabilities underpinning the performance of each MDS manoeuvre (Figure 1). Further to this point, athletes who have traditionally been viewed as ‘fast’ may be particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of suddenly imposed high-intensity decelerations. When performing these actions, athletes with high top-end speed capabilities will experience greater mechanical loads (Harper & Kiely, 2018) due to the larger momentums generated, thus necessitating strong braking capabilities to slow themselves down.
The highly variable and multi-directional nature of COD manoeuvres can impart varied musculoskeletal and neuromuscular demands on the systems of the body. Localised joint and tissue structures are required to tolerate high magnitudes of force that emanate through the musculoskeletal system on ground contact, of which team sport athletes may be required to perform in high and repeated frequencies during match play and training. Furthermore, particularly during sharp-angled CODs, the high eccentric braking force requirements of preliminary deceleration can impart significant damage on soft-tissue structures through eccentric muscle fibre contraction; this damage may be accentuated if an athlete demonstrates a reduced capacity to effectively attenuate and support these high force demands. COD has thus been acknowledged as a key mechanism for both common and severe injuries (e.g., patella femoral pain syndrome, athletic groin pain, adductor strain, lateral ankle sprains, and anterior-cruciate ligament [ACL] knee injury, etc.) in team sports. Furthermore, a performance-injury risk conflict may again exist, whereby the COD biomechanics that have been identified as key determinants of faster performance also correspond with the mechanisms that are linked to injury risk during the same task (McBurnie et al., 2019). For example, during cutting, a large lateral foot plant distance is required to generate medio-lateral propulsive force to accelerate the COM to the contralateral side; however, this also generates a larger frontal plane moment arm for the intersegmental GRFs to act and subsequently amplify the multi-planar knee joint loading experienced, which may increase ACL strain. Undoubtedly, COD manoeuvres are multi-planar and multi-step actions that have their own unique implications for performance and injury risk. COD necessitates a high technical competency alongside a robust physical capacity, so that athletes can rapidly and effectively change direction from both limbs, across a spectrum of angles and velocities, during match play and training.
“Crucially, these observations highlight that there are unique kinetic, kinematic, and spatiotemporal characteristics that operate on a continuum, in which the generation and transmission of GRF variables are dependent on the movement velocity, angle and type of MDS manoeuvre.”McBurnie & Dos’Santos (2021)
Curvilinear speed, synonymous with arced running, curved speed and curved sprinting, has been defined as “the upright running portion of the sprint completed with the presence of some degree of curvature” (Caldbeck, 2019). A key aim of curved sprinting is the generation of centripetal and medial-lateral GRF to deviate from the path of travel in a curvilinear motion, while attaining or maintaining high velocities. Recent advancements in the field of ‘contextual sprinting’ have shed more light on this MDS quality, where Caldbeck (2019) identified that approximately 85% of all maximal velocity sprints in the English Premier League may possess some degree of curvature. Furthermore, recent findings (Fílter et al., 2019) have demonstrated low correlations between curvilinear and linear sprint speed (r2 = 0.34-0.37), suggesting that superior linear speed performance may not necessarily be indicative of faster performance during curved sprinting tasks, and vice versa. Resultantly, curvilinear speed should be considered as an independent athletic quality, which possess unique kinetic, kinematic, muscle activation, and spatiotemporal characteristics that should be assessed, trained and monitored accordingly (McBurnie & Dos’Santos, 2021).
Curvilinear sprinting remains a largely unexplored topic, which means we have a limited understanding of developing and monitoring this quality. However, due to the maintenance of a cyclical running pattern, practitioners should be aware of the demands this type of action may have on the lower-body musculature at high-speeds, particularly due to the asymmetrical loading patterns which may be observed between the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ leg. Different to linear sprinting, which requires a more upright and sagittal plane approach, curved sprinting requires a medial whole-body lean to counteract a rotating moment and facilitate the continuation of a curved path of travel. As such, whereas the ‘inside’ leg may act as a frontal plane stabiliser, undergoing greater adductor and semitendinosus muscle activation, the ‘outside’ leg, with its greater propulsive and rotational requirements, typically demonstrates higher gluteus medius and biceps femoris activation (Filter et al., 2020). This should be considered in both athletic preparation and injury mitigation strategies, whereby an individual’s movement profile and playing position may markedly affect the resultant curved sprinting demands that accumulate throughout a season. For example, in soccer, a central attacker may be more likely to perform a greater volume of arced runs in and out of possession, as well as perform more sharper sprinting angles, in comparison to other playing positions.
Programming Considerations within a Team Sport Microcycle
Ultimately, in the context of team sports, the performance of MDS is underpinned by a perceptual-action response to dynamic scenarios within match play. The MDS team believe that harmonising sporting skill with speed development is thus pivotal to team sport performance. Agility and ‘gamespeed’ are certainly much more anecdotal topics with limited supporting research within MDS, and readers are directed to our two-part review linked in this post for in-depth discussion on these elements from our perspective (Multidirectional Speed in Youth Soccer Players: Programming… : Strength & Conditioning Journal (lww.com)). With that said, we also believe that enhancing an athlete’s physical, mechanical and technical ability to accelerate, decelerate, change direction, and attain top-end speeds both linearly and curvilinearly, will enhance agility and ‘gamespeed’ performance, offering the athlete more ‘movement solutions’ and ‘physical affordances’ to implement in sport.
“Practitioners should view every opportunity in the field as a chance to reinforce the mechanics and technical mastery necessary to maximise multi-directional speed performance.”
Possessing an understanding of the biomechanical and physiological underpinnings of different MDS manoeuvres will thus allow practitioners to allocate training content throughout the week to ensure athletes are exposed to all aspects of the MDS continuum (Figure 1), while also ensuring physical preparedness is optimised, and fatigue is reduced, ready for game day. With this in mind, we present an example of an in-season microcycle in soccer for the reader’s consideration. In light of this discussion, MDS exercises that involve high braking requirements and are likely to impart significant degrees of tissue damage may be placed earlier in the training week (e.g., MD-4; Table 1) to ensure the fatiguing training effects have dissipated before match day. Conversely, early acceleration, with its more concentric-bias and lower neuromuscular demands due to reduced movement speeds, may be supplemented closer to match day (e.g., MD-1; Table 1). As such, although ‘micro-dosing’ has become somewhat of a buzzword within the industry in recent times, the multi-component nature of team sport athletic preparation (i.e., physical/technical/tactical requirements) perhaps necessitates this approach to ensure ‘quick-wins’ can be achieved within the training week. Certainly, the minimum effective dosages to maintain or develop each of these MDS components remains relatively unclear, which warrants further investigation to establish both the acute and chronic MDS dosage requirements for each respective sport.
Table 1 | An example in-season soccer microcycle with reference to multi-directional speed training.
Those working in team sports should understand that the high-intensity and multi-directional nature of match play and training has important implications for both athletic performance and injury risk. Multi-directional speed can and should be one of the most pursued physical qualities in team sport, and practitioners should strive to develop robust and effective 360° athletes, who have the competency and capacity to accelerate, decelerate, and change direction rapidly and effectively from both limbs.
Pushing the limits of human performance while preventing injuries in team sport remains a highly complex task and may rightly be considered as the “Quest for the Holy Grail”; perhaps an even harder task still is to consolidate some of these challenges into a 10-minute read! We hope that the discussion in this post has provided some valuable insights that you can apply to your own team sport setting, and we thank the readers who have stuck with us until the end. Stay tuned for more updates in the next few months.
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