Footy – The need for Speed

The following discussion is an abbreviated section from Agility, Speed and Conditioning for Aussie Rules Footy. This discussion ties in closely with other sections of the eBook too, but this short discussion should prove though provoking in terms of the need for speed in a game, and how exactly to train it.


Being fast is golden in footy. Particularly at the highest level, where you so often see magnificent footballers miss the draft because they are ‘too slow.’ The other really common one of course being ‘too small.’ However speed is also important at the grassroots level too, because as we have covered in previous articles and the books, the key moments in a game (contests) are done at speed, and therefore if you are quicker, you are already at an advantage. But this need for speed ability is misunderstood.


When performing an all out sprint for a ball in a contest, how far would you normally run before reaching a contest? Or to think about this from another angle, how often would you have to run flat out (as if competing in a 100m dash) for 60 meters + in a game? The reality in footy is, that there are very few opportunities to reach your absolute top speed. This may at first sound surprising, but lets think about it a little deeper.


‘Sport is about acceleration, not speed. Coaches consistently use the wrong term when discussing the quality they covet most. As coaches our interest is not in top speed but rather in acceleration. How rapidly an athlete accelerates, not the athletes absolute speed, will determine success in team sports.’          
Mike Boyle


This short word from Mike pretty much sums up where we are going with this discussion in 3 very short and concise sentences. The true quality that will separate elite from also-rans is actually explosive acceleration, rather than absolute top speed as such.


Just look at the draft combine and the tests there. There is the 20-meter sprint, as well as the 30-meter repeat sprint test. Both measuring the ability to break out of the blocks and accelerate as quickly as possible. So why is there no 100 meter sprint test? Surely that’s how we test who is the fastest player, since that is how we measure who the fastest man alive is (or who the fastest AFL player is at half time on grand final day.) The answer is because recruiters aren’t really after pure top speed, but rather acceleration.

Indeed, talking about Draft Combines, Mike Boyle discussed the NFL Draft Combine in
Advances in Functional Training. Mike found in his work preparing young athletes for the combine, and assessing various times over the years, that when analysing the times in 10 yard increments (0-10, 10-20, 20-30 and 30-40), the difference in 40 yard dash times, are so often purely the difference in the first 10 yards.

Going back through a couple of the GPS reports that we have referred to in other articles as well as Agility, Speed & Conditioning for Aussie Rules Footy, in a 2010 paper, based on the collection of data, Gray and Jenkins concluded;


The relatively short duration of sprint efforts (2–3 seconds) suggests players seldom reach their maximal speed in games. Thus, development of acceleration may be of greater benefit than a focus on improving maximal speed during game-specific training. Nonetheless, players with greater speed have a distinct advantage when longer efforts are required. The importance of developing maximal speed should therefore not be underestimated.’


Similarly in a 2009 report from the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine titled ‘Profile of position movement demands in elite junior Australian rules footballersVeale, analysed data collected from the TAC Cup U/18 competition, and found that about ¾ of all out sprints were for less than 4 seconds (barely long enough to reach top speed.)

But lets not misunderstand what we are saying, and think that speed is irrelevant – it isn’t. Indeed, if you are already very fast, this will come in handy when improving your energy systems that we discussed earlier, as once you have improved them and become what would commonly be termed ‘fitter’ your general running speed that you will now continue to maintain throughout a game will mean that you will have a great advantage over your rivals who may also have well developed energy systems, but the speeds that they are able to run at per effort level, will not be as quick as yours.

"We all know that acceleration is a quality that is highly significant in team sports. Max velocity to a much lesser extent. And obviously the change of directions and reacting to different stimuli throw a spanner in the works."

Alex Natera
GWS Giants

So acceleration is more important (and we will expand on this topic and add more too it when we get to agility), but speed is still important. Got it. But is it worth doing specific work for these things if you aren’t naturally fast?

For starters with acceleration, the answer is yes – and we expand on this in detail and with specific direction in the agility section in Agility, Speed & Conditioning for Aussie Rules Footy. But in terms of doing work to develop absolute top speed, there are a few points to consider. For starters lets take another quote from Mike Boyle;

‘It takes months to make an athlete fit, but it can take years to make them fast.’

Developing genuine top speed is a thorough and exhausting and long process. Acceleration is an easier quality to improve, as it doesn’t require you to improve your top speed per se, but rather just enhances your ability to reach your own personal top speed in quicker time (and this can be done by working on it during conditioning drills, as well as all importantly with strength and power exercises.)

So my main question would be, why spend so much time on something that can take so long to genuinely develop, when at the end of the day it isn’t as important an ability as its closely related cousin (acceleration), which also happens to be easier to develop?

Time is also an issue. If you have 20 hours a week to dedicate to athletic development, then perhaps you may like to work on some pure speed drills. But this would rarely be the case for anyone who isn’t playing full time. On top of that, it is also important to remember the risk of injury – as running flat out will put you at greater risk of injury (especially hamstring strains and tears) than other forms of running due to the explosive nature. Sprint training isn’t the type of thing you just step out and jump straight into. You need to build up to it appropriately, and factor it in with the rest of your training (weights, club sessions, etc.)

In having this discussion, it is also worth looking to another sport – soccer, a sport in which footy shares many similarities, and one which much of what is being done at club training these days has been taken from (such as match simulation.)


Most soccer sprints are over distances between 1-40 meters. Whilst some a longer, they are rarely in excess of 70 meters. A similar issue applies to footy, although with the field being larger, the sprinting distances can get a little longer at times.


“There’s no way to compare sprinting in team sport to sprinting on the track. In track, there is no ball you have to control, there’s no opponents that you have to take care of, there’s no teammates that you have to see where they are standing. You have to look around, you have to be alert, you have to have an overview of the game. In 100m you can run like a zombie – just with your eyes on 100 meters further down the track. There’s nothing else you have to consider.”


“So sprinting in team sports is a little more difficult, because there are more components involved, and more techniques involved. So we can learn something from sprinting in track – absolutely. But I would say that it is only 10-20% that we can learn from that. Most of the things are just redundant for team sports. We are looking basically at a different ball game."

Henk Kraaijenhof

Something that the soccer world has done – and is at the forefront of – is making almost all conditioning work, sprint training included – as specific to soccer as possible, and with as many soccer elements in the sprint training as possible. In footy, just as in soccer, the sprints are rarely in a completely straight line, or certainly not for any real distance. Soon enough into the sprint, you will have to decelerate and change directions, or move to respond to a change in the play or the opponent.


Additionally, your own personal running technique is very much ingrained by the time you are 18 – you have been sprinting repeatedly since you could basically. In other words you have literally done tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands maybe even into the millions of ‘reps’ in sprinting (where 1 step is 1 rep.) The chances of being able to make any real legitimate immediate changes to your sprinting technique are minimal, and any changes that you attempt to make will come at the expense of performance in the short term while your body tries to adjust to new styles. In short, I question whether all the time and effort is worth it, when there are so many other things to focus on conditioning wise. Remember I am not talking about flat out interval efforts – I am talking about pure speed work, in a straight line, with a large focus on technique.


‘One mistake I made early in my career was to concentrate too much on basic speed in my training at the expense of rugby specific movements. You can be the fastest in the team, but if you cant change direction, drop your shoulder, and shift your weight for a tackle, then your speed becomes a weakness rather than a strength.’          
Dan Luger, England, and British & Irish Lions
Conditioning for Rugby


As usual, the soccer world is well ahead of us and even the financially powerful Americans are with this. When I read through old physical conditioning texts from as long ago as 20-30 years (normally Dutch work translated to English) they have been highlighting these points since as far back as the 1970’s. Dr. Raymond Verheijen points out in Conditioning for Soccer that;


‘Sprinting technique must be learned in soccer specific situations.’


‘Pure speed is of no use if a player has no feeling for when he must use his speed.’

So advice in terms of speed training

In short, work on strength and power, as well as some agility and of course energy systems development (or conditioning), and for the speed side of things, focus on running as hard as you can in intervals, club training etc. The benefits gained from pure sprint training will not be worth the time taken to genuinely develop top speed, nor the risk of injury that will be ever present, especially when there are so many other forms of training to consider, and only so many hours (as well as energy available) in the week. Just to reiterate, it is not that speed is irrelevant – read the article closely – (and if you have natural speed, fantastic, this will be a great potential advantage to you if you put it to use) it is just that training specifically for speed with sprinting sessions will return such a negligible benefit for so much time required to achieve it – and when you only realistically have 5-7 hours a week to dedicate to training, your time is better spent on training that will offer a greater return (physical improvement) on your investment (time.)

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