Field Hockey can be categorised as an intermittent running-based team sport, characterised by repeated high-intensity actions such as accelerations, decelerations, and changes in direction at speed.
We can also include shooting and defensive actions in this too, or any explosive movement that involves the alactic/phosphocreatine system. These actions are then interspersed with periods of low-intensity recovery, with the majority (around 80% of the game spent in low-intensity walking or jogging).
In terms of general demands, hockey players can expect to run 5-8km per game, with the level of performance and gender affecting the physical requirements. Ihsan et al. (2021) noted positional differences between defenders, midfielders and forwards. Defenders typically accrue more total distance and high-intensity decelerations, whereas forwards typically perform higher volumes of high speed running (>15km/h) and perform a greater number of high-intensity actions. They also noted that total running distance drops every quarter, with high speed running distances remaining relatively consistent across the four quarters in international men’s hockey. Unsurprisingly, there are greater running demands in international vs national level hockey performance (Jennings et al., 2012).
How can we approach conditioning for hockey?
With this in mind, there are some key principles that we can follow to prepare for hockey performance. Firstly, the ability to produce high-intensity actions is vital, as is the ability to recover between these efforts.
I have written in detail about repeat sprint ability for field hockey, which explains how to go about improving this physical quality. You can read this by scrolling to the bottom of this article to the ‘featured’ blogs section.
We can therefore approach this in one of two ways - prepare for the ‘average’ of the game, which in hockey terms means moderate-intensity work over prolonged periods, or we can prepare for those high-intensity moments.
If we prepare for the average, the medium, or the midpoint of anything we aren’t going to be fully prepared for the moments that matter. We need to be prepared for the high-intensity actions, and the ability to recover between them.
A hierarchy of needs
In another article, I explained in detail how we can use a hierarchy of needs for field hockey, which means emphasising certain physical qualities before others. In the conditioning context, this means firstly ensuring adequate aerobic conditioning levels, before then focussing on the ability to produce high-intensity actions. Anecdotally, without adequate aerobic conditioning, players will struggle to repeat high-intensity actions irrespective of how fast they might be. They may start off performing well, but by the fourth quarter may well be struggling to recover between them, which will reduce their game impact.
This means targeting aerobic conditioning, and then repeated sprint ability.
What principles do we need to follow?
“The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
It is a common mistake to focus on the methods that we use, rather than the principles that underpin them.
When it comes to conditioning for field hockey, the principles that we need to follow are progressive overload, specificity and individual needs.
In other words, don’t worry as much about the method of conditioning that you choose, instead focus on making it relevant, more difficult over time (either by increasing intensity, volume or density of work), and base prescriptions on assessment.
To build the capacity needed, we can use maximal aerobic speed (MAS) intervals, which are a potent means of developing these qualities. These are high-intensity intervals, prescribed based on an assessment of our MAS.
The simplest means of assessing MAS is a time trial such as a 16 pitch lengths (1600 yards or 1462m) run completed as fast as possible. Take care not to start too fast, as you should aim to run this at the most sustainable speed possible, if you go out too fast you will likely exceed your MAS and ‘crash’ meaning your speed drops off drastically.
Evidence would suggest that any time trial needs to be around 4-6 minutes to gain an accurate measure of our aerobic fitness. The time we achieve can then calculate our MAS, which is a predictor of performance.
For example, if we ran 1462m in 5 minutes and 30 seconds (330 seconds):
1500/330 = 4.43m/s
Now we can take this score to achieve a couple of aims:
Compare past and future performance
Compare against normative data for our age, gender or sport
Set goals to increase motivation
Understand our capabilities relative to the demands of the game
Measure the impact of our training programme on our physical fitness
We can put MAS intervals into two broad categories: long intervals and short intervals.
Long intervals are typically 2-5 minutes long, normally utilising a 2-3:1 work to rest ratio, for example 3 minutes on, 1.5 minutes off or 4 minutes on, 2 minutes off.
Short intervals are typically 10-30 seconds long, with a 1:1 work to rest ratio, possibly up to a 1:3 work to rest ratio, for example 15 seconds on, 15 seconds off, or 10 seconds on, 30 seconds off.
In this initial phase where we are focussing on developing our aerobic fitness, we can use a combination of both long and short intervals to provide overload and progression. Ideally this would look like 1 long interval session, and 1 short interval session per week, but if you prefer one over the other then it may suit you better to focus on only one of these types initially. Positional demands are also a consideration, with defenders potentially benefitting more from longer intervals in this phase where greater total distances can be achieved, which would more closely meet their unique demands. Forwards may well suit shorter intervals to better prepare them for the more intensive nature of their positional requirements.
We can calculate our individual interval targets based on time or by distance, depending on preference. Typically it is more suitable for an athlete running on their own to give themselves a target time based on a set distance, for example a 16 second target for a pitch length. When working with a group of athletes as a coach however, it often makes more sense to prescribe individual distances using a set time. This is logistically easier to achieve, as every athlete is working for the same time period, meaning a single whistle for start and stop!
N.B. you need to adjust the percentage of your MAS that you are running in order to make the intensity appropriate for the given time/distance. Some simple guidelines are as follows:
10 seconds - 120% MAS
15 seconds - 115% MAS
20 seconds - 110% MAS
30 seconds - 105% MAS
2 minutes - 90-95% MAS
3 minutes - 80-85% MAS
If, hypothetically, your MAS score was 4.43m/s then you would simply multiply this number by the duration of the interval in seconds to get your target distance (if aiming to run for a set time duration). If you wanted to do 15 seconds on, 15 seconds off at 115% MAS you would aim to run 76m in this time (4.43m/s x 115% x 15s).
If you wanted to run a pitch length as a set distance and wanted a time-based target to aim for, then you would divide 91.4m (1 hockey pitch length) by (4.43m/s x 110% MAS), which would give you 19 seconds as a target.
Another method that we can use to develop aerobic capacity is tempo intervals. Tempo intervals were popularised by the late Charlie Francis, who famously said that ‘medium only works for clothing’. What he meant by this, is that training should be high enough intensity to stimulate adaptation, or low enough intensity to promote recovery. Now it is worth considering that he worked with track sprinters, so this isn’t always true of team sport athletes who are more ‘hybrid’ in nature, but the principle remains.
Tempo intervals involve work at or around 70-75% of our maximal sprint speed, with relatively long periods of recovery in between. This could be 1 pitch length with 50-60 seconds walking recovery between repetitions, repeated 6-8 times.
If you can run a pitch length in 11.4 seconds, then your max sprint speed is 8m/s (29km/h), and 70% of this is 5.6m/s. For the sake of simplicity, we can use this method, as not everyone has speed gates or a speed gun to get an accurate flying 10m sprint! Clearly, using a pitch length sprint would actually give us our mean speed over the distance, but it’s a simple way to get actionable information that we can use to inform training.
For a pitch length interval, this would therefore mean running the distance in 16.3 seconds.
Typically we would complete a session along the following lines:
6-8 reps of 1 pitch length @ 70% max sprint speed
Rest 50-60 seconds per rep
Repeat 3 sets with 3 minutes recovery per set
In simpler terms, we could do the following (each comma is a 60-second rest):
Rest 3 minutes
Rest 3 minutes
This method compliments max speed running efforts, as it is high enough speed to promote good running mechanics, but low enough intensity to not impact recovery between high neuromuscular demand sprint sessions. This can be completed 2-3 times per week.
Max speed sprinting
The best way to get better at sprinting is to sprint! Nothing can compare to the demands of this, as the muscular forces experienced can be up to 9 x bodyweight of force in the hamstring and up to 8 x bodyweight of force in the soleus (Dorn et al., 2012). No exercise in the gym can adequately meet these forces, but strength exercises can complement and prepare for these forces.
Sprinting can be approached in a few ways, but a general rule of thumb is to target 2 exposures to max sprint speeds per week in some capacity. A great way to include this frequently is as part of a warm-up, where we progressively increase the intensity of the session to meet the demands of the main session.
Flying sprints can be a great way to build up to max velocity exposure, gradually increasing speed until we hit top speed (or at least >90% max speed). This might look like 3 flying 20m sprints using a rolling 20m build-up, which would mean a half-pitch length of space required in total.
Max speed efforts push the ‘ceiling’ of our potential, which means that we can either a) run at higher running speeds which gives us a performance advantage, or b) run at a lower relative percentage of our maximum speed meaning that we can recover faster between high-intensity efforts. This is something known as the ‘anaerobic speed reserve’, which is the difference between our maximal aerobic speed (MAS) and our maximal sprint speed. The higher that both are, the quicker we can sprint, and the quicker we can recovery between high intensity actions.
Speed is a volatile quality, meaning that it can drop quite quickly if we do not give it a consistent stimulus each week. Consistency therefore, is king.
I have written about speed training specifically in more detail, which you can read by looking at the featured blogs below.
Putting it all together
Now that we have addressed the key points around conditioning for field hockey, we can put together some simple guidelines to follow.
Aerobic capacity focus:
2 MAS sessions per week
20-40 minutes per session
One long interval session (>1 min per rep) and one short interval session (<1min per rep) per week
Aim to gradually increase the volume (amount) of training that you do each week
Change the sessions you complete each week to avoid monotony
Complete a time trial such as the 16 pitch lengths test to prescribe accurate intensities
Max speed/repeat sprint ability focus:
2 speed and 2 tempo conditioning exposures per week
20-40 minutes per session
Incorporate sprint efforts into warm-ups to make yourself time efficient
Progressively increase tempo distances per week, building to 3 x 8 reps
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Bishop et al. (2015) A needs analysis and testing battery for field hockey. Professional strength and Conditioning. 36. 15–16.
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