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Speed Training for Field Hockey

Introduction

Speed is a game defining physical quality in Field Hockey. It allows players to win races to the ball, create separation on the pitch and ultimately produce a higher number of goal scoring opportunities whilst minimising attacking threats in defence. This article aims to highlight some key concepts around speed from a performance perspective, as well as how to improve it through a well designed strength and conditioning programme.

What is speed?

Speed in its simplest terms is how fast something moves (technically referred to as ‘velocity’). From an athletic perspective, we typically talk about sprint speed, but can sometimes confuse the terms ‘acceleration’ and ‘top speed’. For clarity this article aims to address both concepts:

Acceleration - the rate at which an athlete can increase their speed

Top speed - the fastest possible velocity that an athlete can achieve (the point at which they can no longer accelerate)

Both speed qualities have inherent value, but we are more likely to see acceleration and deceleration taking place on the field due to the nature of the game. Field Hockey players will rarely hit their true top speed during a game, as the constraints of carrying a stick, fatigue, low positions and space limit exposures to this. However when it does occur, it is in a highly significant moment of the game such as a counter attack. To highlight the significance of top speed scenarios, if a full back achieves this, something probably hasn’t gone well defensively!

The implications of this are that although acceleration occurs more frequently, top speed is hugely important due to its ability to ‘raise the ceiling’ and make all sub maximal efforts easier. Both qualities therefore need to be addressed in a well planned training programme. One could argue that due to the frequency of accelerations on the field, top speed should perhaps take more of our focus away from the pitch in order to provide our bodies with the high intensity stimulus of sprinting maximally. This is especially relevant for goalkeepers, who never reach top speed. There is also a school of thought that strength and conditioning programmes should seek to provide us with the stimuli that the sport doesn’t. We know from research that the forces we experience during top speed running are almost impossible to replicate anywhere else, which further highlights its importance.

The Speed Reserve

The image above from Deren Hansen illustrates what is known as the ‘speed reserve’. This concept demonstrates the value of a high top speed, as it allows us to work at a lower relative percentage of our maximum. The example in the image shows how by increasing our top speed, every sub maximal running speed becomes relatively easier and less costly.

It’s worth noting at this point that the max velocities in the example are world class, and are unlikely to be achieved by team sport athletes. However, if the bar on the left was athlete A, and the bar on the right was athlete B then running at 5m/s would be more costly for athlete A (46% vs 42% of top speed). In a game like Field Hockey with large high speed running demands, this will lead to a greater cumulative cost for athlete A over the course of a game or tournament. By ‘raising the ceiling’ (top speed), hockey players can become more economical with their sprint efforts.

What about goalkeepers?

As goalkeepers spend most of their time accelerating over very short distances, the principles around acceleration can be taken from this article. However, it is also important to recognise the value of sprinting at top speed from an injury prevention and performance perspective. If we adopt the view that training should provide us with what the sport does not, then there is a strong argument that top speed sprinting provides huge value for goalkeepers.

Injury prevention

A number of common injuries in hockey including hamstring injuries occur during top speed running, owing to the high forces experienced. Sprinting can therefore be a vaccine against possible injury, rather than a risk. If we are smart with our planning, and provide adequate exposure to top speed running on a frequent basis, we can mitigate some of the risks associated with it. We know from research that speed is a volatile quality and can begin to decline after only a week of not training it. We should therefore aim to sprint maximally on a weekly basis, as long as we’ve built up to this over a number of weeks of preparatory work. Two top speed exposures (>95%) per week provide a potent stimulus for both increasing speed and mitigating risk to the tissues which are taxed so heavily during sprinting.

How do I increase my speed?

Increasing speed comes down to a couple of key concepts - force output, elasticity, orientation and mass. These concepts will now be addressed individually before putting it all together into a simple structure that you can follow.

1) Force output

In Newtonian terms, acceleration is net force divided by mass, and therefore if we can increase our maximal strength we can exert more force into the ground and hopefully accelerate at a faster rate. The best method for increasing our maximal strength is weight training, and there are a couple of key principles to follow if we want to achieve this. Firstly, high mechanical tension will drive the adaptations needed to increase our strength, so heavier loads are the best way to achieve this (3-5 repetitions above 80% 1RM). The second alternative if we are relatively new to strength training is to increase muscle size, as force potential of muscle tissue is largely determined by its cross sectional area. Working close to muscular failure will generate the conditions needed for muscle growth. Finally, by using multi-joint exercises we can generate greater forces across joints and ultimately become stronger. Hip thrusts, back squats, cleans and deadlifts are a great foundation to develop a strength training programme around, and have been shown to improve speed. Disclaimer: Please always seek the guidance of an appropriately qualified S&C professional when starting a strength training programme.

2) Elasticity

This term refers to the elastic qualities of our muscles and tendons, which act as springs to exert and recycle force. The faster we sprint, the more elastic we need to be, as we spend less and less time on the ground. As well as regularly practicing top speed running (the most specific way to become faster), hockey players can also include plyometric exercises which improve the elasticity of the muscle-tendon unit, and in particular the achilles tendon. Plyometrics are exercises which typically involve jumping, hopping and bounding, and technically involve spending less than 200 milliseconds on the ground. Plyometric activities are highly demanding on the neuromuscular system, and therefore should be completed with plenty of rest to ensure high quality.

Lastly, depending on whether we are aiming to improve acceleration or top speed, we can utilise exercises which are more complimentary to this outcome. If we are seeking greater acceleration, then exercises which are horizontally orientated and involve longer ground contact times such as broad jumps are a good option. If we are trying to improve our top speed, then exercises involving very short ground contact times and vertical orientation such as depth jumps as appropriate. However this exercise is very high intensity and should only be completed if we are competent enough in the movement and have completed a sufficient preparatory period of a number of weeks prior to this.

3) Orientation

Without effective sprint technique, it doesn’t matter how strong or elastic a player is, as they will end up wasting energy is the wrong direction. This is particularly important for hockey players who often sprint in a low position, which can cause a large forward lean.

What we want is for hockey players to run with good ‘front side’ mechanics i.e. knee drive out in front and fast recycling of feet under the body (as in the image of the track athlete below). This allows for good orientation of the foot under the hip to maximise propulsion. A forward lean (as in the image below of the hockey player) means that this is more difficult, leading to inefficient technique.

Although this is difficult to overcome in the context of game play owing to the constraints of the game itself, hockey players can practice sprinting technique drills that encourage effective front side mechanics to optimise movement efficiency. Exercises such as A marches, A skips, prowler accelerations and sled sprints are great ways to reinforce the positions and patterns needed to optimise technique. Then, and most importantly, this needs to be practiced by sprinting itself, so that players can reinforce these technical shapes at high velocity.

4) Mass

As has been referred to already, mass is another determinant of acceleration and top speed. If an object is heavy, is requires more force to accelerate it and this also applies to the human body. Imagine if we carried a 10kg rucksack on our backs when sprinting - would we accelerate as quickly?

This simple analogy shows the impact that additional mass can have on sprint speed. A careful balance needs to be found to optimise health and performance, whilst increasing speed. If it’s clear that body mass is a limiter to our ability to sprint maximally, then this is something that a qualified nutritionist will be able to support you with. It is beyond the scope of this article or my own professional credentials to comment on nutritional interventions, so please seek out a qualified professional who can support you with this.

High forces + minimal time + effective orientation + low mass = faster top speed and acceleration

Putting it all together

It is hopefully clear by now how impactful speed is as a physical quality for a Field Hockey player. Having addressed some core concepts, and highlighted the myriad of benefits to be gained from regular exposure to sprinting, now we’ll look at how we can piece all of this together, using some template training sessions.

Aim to gain two exposures to top speed running (>95%) twice per week throughout the season. Using a ‘minimal effective dose’ approach, only 2-3 reps per session may be enough to provide the necessary stimulus. The best opportunities to achieve this is during the warm up, following a range of mobility exercises and running technique drills.

Here is a sample top speed running session that can be incorporated into a warm up:

  • A march/skips 2 x 15m

  • Overhead A skips 2 x 15m

  • Straight leg runs 2 x 15m

  • Rolling sprints (20m build, 20m sprint) x 3

A sample acceleration focussed session may look like this:

  • Wall march x 10

  • Wall march load and lift x 10

  • Single exchange x 6

  • Double exchange x 6

  • Partner resisted 5m accelerations 2 x 10m

  • 3 point start accelerations 2 x 10m

  • 2 point start accelerations 2 x 10m

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Henry

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