|Handball Performance: Physiological Considerations & Practical Approach for Training Metabolic Aspects|
Handball is an Olympic sport played professionally in many European countries. However, notwithstanding the professionalization, which is advancing in this sport, a lack of scientific information on its performance can be noticed. This can be due to may reasons, one of them is that most of the research which has been conducted in this field has been published in Eastern European countries and is not readily accessible to the sport science community. Another reason can be attributed to the conservative approach most coaches have towards physical conditioning for handball players. In this work we have analysed the performance model of handball from a metabolic standpoint and proposed some coaching hints for practical application of sport science findings.
Modern handball is a fast game, characterised by incredible athletic performances by athletes. In fact, modern handball players are able to perform many different moves, jumps, running, change of directions and technical movements in very short time and with an order determined by the tactical situation. Running with and without the ball, in line and with different paths, jumping, throwing, passing and receiving in motion or during flight represent the technical characteristics of a modern top handball player. Then, to excel at the highest levels, it is important that training methodologies are developed on a simple basis: specificity. The closer to the demands of the performance, the better the training is. Of course, to obey to the law of specificity we have to know exactly what are the physiological demands of handball performance. Unfortunately, in sport science literature, very few works have been presented in which a deep analysis of Handball performance has been conducted. The aim of this work was to analyse the literature findings and purpose some experiences conducted in Italy with some first league teams and national teams.
Physical conditioning in handball is extremely important for top performance, so the correct approach to training should be based on the knowledge of the specific requirements of the performance and on the development of specific training means. In the first part of this work some physiological considerations have been conducted, in the second part a practical approach to modern handball training has been discussed.
Handball matches have a duration of 60 minutes divided in two halves lasting 30 minutes each. During this time players cover a total distance ranging from 2000 to 6000 meters, based upon different situations: position on the field, tactical defensive and offensive characteristics of the team, characteristics of the game itself and so far and so forth. In a work presented by Cuesta (1988) handball players of the Spanish national team were shown to cover the following distances based upon playing position:
The above-mentioned distances are close to the ones recorded in Konzak & Schake (in Cuesta, 1988) related to DDR players. In a study conducted in Italy with a specific apparatus (Play Controller, Phromos, Perugia) 5000 meters were covered by a right wing during an official match of the Italian Second league (unpublished work, see Figure 1.). It is important to affirm that of course, the total displacement of players on the field is affected by many different parameters. Tactical disposition, position on the field, characteristics of the match itself, are all factors which in some way can affect the amount of space covered by the players on the field. However, what is important to say is that handball players cover the total distance alternating high-intensity actions (sprinting, fast direction changes, jumping) with game phases characterised by relatively low metabolic demands due to the low intensity of the actions. It can be said then that the metabolic demands of modern handball involve the aerobic and anaerobic energy pathways. As a supportive evidence, Konzak and Schacke (in Cuesta, 1988), have shown that, during a Handball match, players perform 190 rhythm variations, 279 change of direction, 16 jumps. Then, based upon what these authors say, an handball players performs a total of 485 high-intensity movements in 60 minutes. An average of 8 per minute. Methods of determination of workload through video analysis can be influenced by observer's capability of determining specific events. However, the above mentioned work support the idea of Handball as an intermittent activity. This intermittent activity is determined by high-intensity motion (with energy mostly furnished by ATP-PC and anaerobic pathways) and low intensity motion (in which the aerobic pathways have the function of active recovery).
In a study conducted by Lupo et al. (1996) on the athletes of the Italian National team during friendly matches an average heart rate of 145 b.p.m. was found. Max heart rate was 190 b.p.m and lactate values were 4 mMolÆL-1. Higher lactate levels were found by Cuesta ( ± 10 mMolÆL-1) and from Colli, Manzi, Cardinale, Gardini (M= 9 mMolÆL-1; SD= ± 1.8, unpublished data 1988). This difference in lactate levels can be attributed to the differences of match characteristics (friendly versus official matches) and most of all, the data collected by Lupo et al. (1996) were referred to an extremely "easy" friendly match of the national team against a team from third league.
Other data collected during the years 1996-1998 from our research group in Italy showed heart rates ranging from 140 to 200 b.p.m.. Of course this range does not say anything useful for a better understanding of handball performance. Moreover, heart rate data can be misleading if a precise analysis is not performed and the distribution is not considered. Average data in fact, do not provide useful information on the workload of handball players. As an example, in figure 1 we can see the heart rate of a handball player during a tournament match. If we should consider the average heart rate (150 bpm) and the time spent in the "aerobic zone" (70-85% of max heart rate, see figure 2 and 3), we would risk to affirm that aerobic metabolism is the most important metabolic pathway in handball. This conclusion has been drawn many years ago and most coaches are still convinced that aerobic capacity and aerobic power are the most important aspects to train for top performance.
An accurate analysis of handball performance should consider that the most important actions (the ones that make the difference) are short-high-intensity motions which are able to determine an increase in hydrogen ions (H+) permitting lactate formation in muscle cells determining the lowering of cellular pH and inhibition of muscular contraction processes. High-intensity movements add to intramuscular and circulating levels of La and hydrogen ions (H+) that retard the rate of glycolysis inhibiting the activity of glycolytic enzymes (Danforth & Helmereich, 1964) or interfere with the muscular contraction process (Hogan et al. 1995; Nakamaru et al. 1972).
Moreover it should be pointed that these "explosive-type" activities are followed by low intensity actions or pauses (active recovery) during which oxygen consumption is directed to favour H+ transport through the transport chain to recharge ATP from NAD and FAD and to favour the Cori cycle through which lactate is converted to glycogen. When the exercise intensity is very high, it is very difficult for our biological system to keep up with hydrogen ions formation and lactate removal, in this case, hydrogen ions bind with Pyruvic acid (end product of glycolysis) forming lactic acid which is then transformed to lactate in the blood and accumulating H+, determining a lowering of the pH of the muscle cell which is impaired in its normal functions. These well-known biological principles should represent the basic knowledge for every coach for the development of an effective training plan.
During handball matches lactate levels have been shown to be below 10 mmol per litre-1 this represents not a very high amount as compared for example to 400 meters run or 100 meters run (i.e. Hirvonen et al. 1992). It means that lactate it is not a limiting factor in handball, however it should be pointed that in any case, training should contain drills able to produce this amount of lactate to determine specific adaptations in handball players.
In a research work of Delamarche et al. (1987), lactate levels measured during a handball match in the French league, reached values between 4 and 9 mmol per litre-1. Of course the highest value was reached by the players most active in the game (backcourt players). Similar values (7-10 mmol per litre-1) were found during international matches of a professional team (Dukla Praga, Bolek & Liska, 1981). In conclusion, based upon these findings, it can be affirmed that handball is a sport characterised by the involvement of both aerobic and anaerobic metabolic pathways in which the effort is of intermittent characteristics and explosive type of movements are repeated over time at high intensity during game situations.
As previously pointed out, handball requires intermittent activities in which high-intensity type of movements (sprinting, jumping, diving on the ball) are followed by low intensity activities. Training plans should then be based on this concept whatever they are general drills or game-like activities. In the past, but also nowadays, metabolic training devoted to improve endurance capabilities of handball players, was based upon the application of long steady state running of various distances. The pre-competition phase was then based upon an increase in the volume of running and by aerobic type drills aimed to increase aerobic capacity. This kind of training is of course effective in enhancing cardiovascular capabilities and represents a form of general training well accepted, however it should be pointed that, when referred to handball players, it is not the most appropriate way of training for enhancing endurance, and, most of all, the "abuse" of such forms of training could be detrimental for the performance itself and for the effects of concurrent type of training usually implemented in the pre-competitive period (i.e. strength training). We will now see why.
During aerobic type activities such as cyclic running, low intensity movements are performed repeatedly over time. These kind of muscular activities rely mostly on the recruitment of slow twitch fibers (Morris, 1968). In this way, if we use for many days this approach, we will of course train the neuromuscular system to a preferential recruitment of slow fibers. Not only that, in fact, in this way, we will train only the oxidative pathways and not the anaerobic neither the ATP-CP system. During handball performance, game situations are never steady-state type and involve a combination of different motions (running backwards, forwards, sideward, sidestepping, jumping and so far and so forth). Then, why not training handball players with intermittent exercise?
Research has shown that, during the repetition of high-intensity-short duration movements, the aerobic demands are very high, as indicated by the rise of oxygen uptake (Hamilton et al. 1991; Balsom et al. 1992; Balsom et al. 1993; Balsom et al. 1994). In fact, during low intensity actions following high-intensity short burst-type movements, ATP is furnished through aerobic pathways. This observation is supported by the fact that, when recovery actions are relying on anaerobic pathways, ATP turnover is very low and phopshocreatine resynthesis is inhibited (Harris et al. 1975; Quistroff et al. 1992). In fact, a direct relationship has been found in in-vitro muscles between oxygen uptake and phophocreatine resynthesis (Idstrom et al. 1985). In this connection, it can be then affirmed that aerobic metabolism is mainly involved in the replenishment of ATP stores and CP. Training endurance for an handball player means train his/her capabilities to perform high-intensity motions for the whole duration of the match. Most of all it is important to say that intermittent training is the most effective way for training effectively keeping in mind these simple guidelines: high-intensity motions, with lactate levels below 10 mmol.l-1. Aerobic power training conducted through repetitions of running on various distances (400-2000 meters), has been often utilised with the aim of improving aerobic performance and delay the occurrence of fatigue. This approach has been shown also to be wrong in light of the observations conducted by Bosco (1989), which demonstrated an absolute independence between explosive power and aerobic performance. The above-mentioned systematic analysis conducted by Bosco has shown that these two variables are characterised by different biological processes. In fact, there were no correlations between performances in aerobic tests and the ones in explosive power. Since it is an accepted fact that handball performance at highest levels is determined by the repetition of explosive-type motions, it should now be clear that training mainly the aerobic capabilities in handball players with track running or high volume running is just a time-consuming task useless for enhancing handball performance itself. At this point it is important to define what must be the proper direction to an effective handball-training plan. Endurance in handball players must be trained with general and game-like drills of intermittent pattern. On this principle, some exercises have been developed in which handball players perform drills in which they alternate quick high-intensity actions (sprinting, jumping, side stepping movements) with low intensity activities (running, side-stepping). Well-known drills used in handball have been also analysed in order to assess their metabolic characteristics and their possible effectiveness in improving endurance in top handball players. All the data have been collected during training camps of the Italian National Team or during training sessions of an Italian Handball Team playing in the first league). The aim of a conditioning coach in modern ball games should be to develop an effective training plan through the optimisation of game-like activities. This is the main concept of specificity of training, which should be kept in mind in any sport. Handball players do not like to run for hours outside, under the rain or in the woods, they like just to play handball, run with the ball, move to catch the ball, and jump and shot to score. Everything else is of course not well accepted and sometimes it is not very effective in producing the right adaptations.
In figures 4,5 and 6 it is possible to see actual measurement of heart rate during this type of drills in which athletes were required to perform movements similar to the game situation, or some game-like activities. Also some general exercises of intermittent work were performed and heart rate collected. Also it is presented a graphic showing heart rate in one athlete during 1000 meters running on track and during a circuit of handball drills in which the athlete was performing little sprints, jumps, side-stepping movements and active recovery running at pre-determined pace and time. This comparison has been made mostly because a lot of coaches use running on distances between 600 and 2000 meters on track to train aerobic power in handball players. With this comparison and with other data presented we are willing to show that with a well-planned indoor drill it is possible to produce the same adaptations, not only that, also that with intermittent training it is possible to enhance aerobic power without impairing explosive strength. With this we want to introduce a concept in training handball players: endurance to speed-strength. Endurance to speed-strength is of course influenced by metabolic (oxygen consumption and lactate production) and neuromuscular factors (FT versus ST recruitment) however it is the most important characteristic of modern handball. The best team is the team able to play high-intensity handball for the whole duration of the match. The fittest handball player is the one able to run fast breaks, jump high and shoot fast for the whole duration of the match. This goal can be reached with general intermittent-type drills aimed to enhance speed endurance or with specific drills constituted by alternance of short sprints, side stepping and jumping in different directions over time. Of course depending on the rest intervals between sets and reps the target can be speed strength or more general metabolic enhancement.
A modern approach to handball training is needed for being able to improve handball players' performances. This modern approach in metabolic training must be based on the assumption that steady state running with high volume is not specific for enhancing handball players' endurance capabilities and performances. An effective training plan must be based upon intermittent drills in which handball players have to perform different motions with different paths/movements at the highest intensity possible, followed by lower intensity periods. General drills can be easily developed using cones, circles, small obstacles and small circuits, but, what is most important, game-like drills need to be used in training. These game-like drills can be performed by a reduced number of players (i.e. 3 vs.3, 4 vs.4 and so far and so forth) in reduced part of the field. Attacking and defensive tasks can be used also as training drills with time limits to perform the tasks and with specific rest periods. Of course, when developing game-like or technical drills, the results cannot be easily generalized, however, it is important to say that through the measurement of heart rate and lactate production it is possible to monitor effectiveness of every specific drill and, from there, develop a conditioning approach more specific of modern handball demands (see figure 7). Many coaches still prefer to train players on track and field courts, making them running different distances (100 meters to 2000 meters), we should never forget that the handball court is long 40 meters, and the actual space covered by players is never more than 6000 meters. These distances are all covered with different speed, with different paths and very often changing directions. Handball players have to be trained for quickness on the court, and the ability to maintain high levels of speed endurance moving with and without the ball. To our opinion, purposing unspecific training loads is a defeat, and there is a need for developing a specific handball training methodology. A good coach need to question him/herself about the effectiveness of every conditioning drill and if it is really matching the performance model, only in this way we will finally have athletes trained to play attractive handball rather then competing in track and field.