By Carl Valle
With Repeated Sprint Ability (RSA), we need to look at how seasons and careers shape this quality. We need a big picture developed over longer periods of time. And we need to see how well interventions work in real team situations. Some of my favorite sport science articles are about RSA, but the studies focused on the wrong micro areas and failed to present a big picture.
This article describes what we need to know about RSA and shares the best science available to make athletes fast and fit. Coaches are frustrated with research that doesn’t give them answers or asks better questions. Over the last few years we have seen some amazing research by sport scientists, but the gap in applying this information is growing wider.
Troubles With Repeated Sprint Ability and Bridging the Gap
Mladen Jovanovic and Ernie Rimer provided very thought-provoking arguments and guidelines for RSA, and I wish to build on this information. Mladen illustrated the limitations of conventional metrics, and Ernie discussed how RSA science fits into the coaching world.
I’m concerned that, unless we step back and evaluate the state of athlete development honestly, many parties will claim they are addressing speed and conditioning but go back to babysitting elite athletes or grinding down emerging talent. The profession is ironically stuck in overtraining or neglecting training altogether. And some teams don’t evaluate fitness at all.
While I agree with the science and understand the limitations of RSA measurement, my biggest gripe is there’s nothing on player tracking data that is earth-shattering. If RSA matters, is it showing up in actual games after real attempts during training? Most of my experience and data comes from team field sports, but sports like ice hockey and basketball are either in a dark age or locked down in secrecy. It’s not that RSA isn’t worth developing; the real question is who is augmenting this quality well.
The soul of this article is its offer of training options that make a difference in nearly all sports at all competition levels. To solve the RSA conundrum, we must take four steps.
- Define what RSA really is and measure it.
- Find areas and spots during the training year to improve RSA.
- Educate team head coaches and assistants on practice design.
- Infuse RSA testing, not monitoring, back into team sports.
These steps seem like a lot to digest, and if you’re worried they’re not worth the effort or they’re too much to put on a coach’s plate, relax. We can remove a lot of the noise, buzzwords, ornamental sport science, and antiquated practices to streamline how to improve the ability to be fast repeatedly during games and throughout a long season.
Are Repeated Sprint Ability Calculations Useful?
If you don’t know how fast someone is, it’s not useful to see how they repeat their speed. Power endurance, repeat sprint ability, speed endurance, sport-specific conditioning, repeat speed, and other terms are tossed around, but the language isn’t as important as the evaluation of what is fast in the first place.
Testing speed before a repeated speed session will likely result in a better score so that potential pacing of an RSA test won’t occur. RSA testing should be part of speed evaluation. It should not be the only time you assess sprint qualities.RSA testing should be part of speed evaluation & not the only time you assess sprint qualities. Click To Tweet
The sum of sprint work (the average of sprint work calculations used after testing) does not tell the whole story with repeated sprinting. Even the scores that look at the slope of decay and other patterns still miss the key factor—first you must be fast. How an athlete fatigues is only interesting if you plan to change something after you analyze the data.
While it’s useful to test athletes during the preseason, much of the training is up to the team coach in practices. There will be no change from year to year unless you think of training as an infinite series of training phases. Always think about how the past and future can help or hinder a program. This might mean a poor winning season requires training at the end of the year when the team didn’t advance or make playoffs. You must train for the future.
Reflecting on past post-season competition is also important. Many successful teams are technically behind lesser teams that had a transition phase and prepared for their next season while the championship teams were a weeks away from finishing their current season. All of this matters for calculating RSA because the calculation has to have context.
Another issue concerns placing athletes into groups and not analyzing them as individuals. I agree with the four major patterns that Ernie Rimer identified and shared in his NSCA presentation, but the gray areas between those can overwhelm a coach when managing multiple teams and testing multiple times. For example, what about the athlete who has good speed and good endurance? Where does a coach start if an athlete has medium speed and medium endurance?
Limiting factors include not only genetics and time allowances for training but also an athlete’s belief system and lifestyle during the season and in the offseason. “Winners are made in the offseason” used to be a great quote, but how does a team like Real Madrid get better when the players never stop competing?
Most RSA calculations are incomplete not because their formulas are missing variables but because most scientific investigations need to look at more data points within a smarter context. All the research is available to us and it’s extremely valuable, but applied coaching should expand on the science and build more models instead of testing and placing athletes into buckets. Although several team training partners are different physiologically and genetically, it may be unwise to break up hard work to be more individualized even though it makes sense according to sport science.
Lazy Player Tracking and the Testing Drought Problem
Several teams focus on monitoring instead of training, setting themselves up to fail in the long run. If collecting data gives the coach enough camouflage so they don’t worry about the primary needs of lower body strength and overall preparation, testing specifics such as power and speed will become extinct.
Field tests are not dying because sports wearables are growing; technology is expanding because useful information is shrinking. Testing, while not always ideal, needs to get done in modern sport. Without knowing an athlete’s specific abilities, much of what happens after becomes simply guesswork.Technology is expanding because useful information is shrinking. Modern sport needs testing. Click To Tweet
Bragging about GPS metrics and player tracking data is no different than bragging about hours of video. Sure, it’s a lot of information but it’s not really your job. If you’re not training athletes in the weight room, what you do after is just busywork to pretend that sport science or high performance should still have a department in the organization.
We use player tracking data to help translate what people believe they see on the field to what they should do based on what actually happened. I’ve seen hundreds of weekly in-season setups and microcycles for weekly sports like soccer and football (American). Most teams are stuck in the dark ages, doing too much or too little with gross volume that they can’t progress much. Even if the composition of the work is filtered and managed, it’s limited to only acute and chronic work ratios.
Sport science research shows that simply training improves RSA. So why test at all? Truthfully, testing may not be necessary. But if we don’t test, we’re only hoping that things fall into place, which is not a good plan. If we can’t make a case for not only testing but also getting sport teams to value the data, we’ll lose the war in other areas later, even in the weight room.If we don't get sport teams to value testing data, we'll lose in other areas, even the weight room. Click To Tweet
Artificial intelligence is emerging to help interpret the chaos of games, but game constraints and the nuances of sport are not practical between seasons, a time when we need most of this information. Yes, an RSA test won’t happen midweek for EPL teams. But if you don’t do this in the preseason because you’re scared a player will get hurt, you’ll likely extend this thinking into your preparation for this period. The mere act of preparing for a test will ensure that training is accountable and effective. The paranoia of injuries and the search for recovery techniques made things arguably worse for sport. We need to pick our battles, not always retreat.
Specific Ways to Test RSA and Reap Higher Yields
I don’t test RSA often. When I do, I want to know I’m seeing information that accurately represents the truth about what’s going on. I hate doing only velocity tests because they don’t show what’s happening with the athlete internally. I have done a few lab tests, which were a waste of time and an ugly process that didn’t move the needle.
A conventional field test using nominal equipment, however, will raise the science game and make the team, including the coach, politically more connected. As I’ve mentioned in the past, if coaches hold meetings while you’re at work and unable to attend, don’t expect them to fight for you or for strength and conditioning. One way to include a team coach is to have them visit and watch the players, which also motivates the athletes. I learned this when Tony Dungy visited the weight room occasionally while he coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and player effort improved.
The first step to better data is to involve the top down politics and team culture, which makes data resonate. It’s not offering a statistical equation or making a sport science adjustment. While promoting culture, don’t forget that you need to win and motivate athletes to do what they need. Poor performance isn’t valued even if everyone is holding hands singing campfire songs.
After engaging in the necessary politics, it’s time for the test itself. This means capturing a great time to use for comparison with subsequent reps. The entire team suffers when an athlete doesn’t perform maximally, paces the session, and wants to hide in the middle.
A team has three primary options to discover what an athlete can do:
- Test an athlete alone in special circumstances.
- Test an athlete in a small group one at a time.
- Test all athletes at the same time or in large flights.
I’ve seen some amazing RSA performances at the end of return-to-play without external team motivation. I’ve also seen an entire team self-sabotage themselves and a great conditioning program because the head coach wanted to train hard immediately after the test. The number one reason for not getting data, besides laziness, is that teams simply don’t gel together no matter how well the conference slides appear during presentations.
Next comes details such as rest-to-work ratio and distance and even the mode of assessment. I’ve seen Wingate tests attacked due to their lack of transfer to the ice. But many coaches want to know overall physiological changes since contemporary programs in the weight room are sometimes very specific and may confuse interpretation later. As for RSA test parameters, keep the rest periods slightly longer and the reps shorter for more compliance rather than very short rest periods.When testing RSA, keep the rest periods slightly longer and the reps shorter. Click To Tweet
Finally comes the equipment demands. Timing gates are not viable options for most teams because testing RSA requires a lot of real estate and operational demands to be successful. A set of lasers and a contact grid for each lane with a walk-back is ideal, but using multi-athlete timing works great to push the athletes and get high-quality data. Some player tracking data is very sharp, but I only trust some models and some indoor local testing.
More details about physiological aspects of conditioning tests can be found in my article on testing errors. The main takeaway regarding equipment is that having more data that’s captured correctly makes the interpretation easier. Like an impressionist painting, more dots makes it easier to see what the artist sees. The same is true with testing data.
Interventions: Improving the Player vs. Improving the Testing Metrics
If you skipped to this section, go back and read the article in its entirety. If you don’t, you may do yourself and your athletes a disservice. The goal of any program is to improve by looking at the game and preparing for it, knowing good preparation will show up with great injury reduction and great testing data. Most coaches who are new to strength and conditioning or those who want a fresh perspective should go to the CVASPS store and pick up a copy of the second edition of the Manual. In the conditioning chapter, I cover workouts in detail for improving athlete performance, not for inflating RSA scores artificially.
Focusing first on data sounds logical, but if you concentrate on the process instead, you’ll see higher results in both testing and transfer during the season. The NFL offers the best examples of testing issues as they test athletes in artificial environments, a point I often share in my articles. I love that the combine tests power, but the athletes will likely never reach those performance levels again due to both motivation and situational needs. After the bowl game, if they choose even to participate now, a rookie will place their entire career in a program to simply score better on tests. Once they’re drafted, they need to switch gears to prepare to play.
Of course strength and power training along with speed and jumping ability are important. Athletes have so little conditioning and work capacity, however, they’re not prepared even if they shift gears completely to preseason preparation. Focusing on tests sacrifices true system preparation and compartmentalizes resources too much.
Training programs should be evaluated for RSA qualities; they should not fix preparation by overemphasizing changes. An overemphasis on RSA usually is not an issue because “skills and drills” in team sport doesn’t even allow training programs to allot resources to address deficits or physical needs. I’ve looked at a lot of training data over the years, and skimming test results left me with more questions than answers for teams.
When I evaluate RSA performance, I start with the player’s historical speed, their level of play, and total training hours within a competition season. Simply put, most athletes are overcompeting and undertrained, placing a coach in the limbo zone of “pretend to pamper” with minimal training.
If you don’t have much time to train, you must take risks or you’ll simply run out of sessions. On the other side of the continuum, small microdosing of aerobic and speed work can keep an athlete fit and fast with little risk during long competition periods. Coaches are like commercial airline pilots. They make their money on take-off and landing; cruising in the air is not as difficult. The analogy makes sense—coaches need to be good at avoiding and managing risk. Avoiding training will not work in the long run.
Most of the literature focuses on 6-12 week interventions of small sided games, absolute speed work, or some form of interval work. Dan Baker did a great job reviewing ways to prepare for rugby, but how much of that will make sense for other sports like basketball or baseball? These interventions are useful for many though. The art lies in attacking the longest training period, and that’s in-season training.
Here are four methods to make competition phases effective.
- Make sleep the only passive rest option and get in the pool. One session a week helps with the aches and pains of competition, and twice a week shows up on fitness tests provided you’re also doing land training. I’ve mentioned water training in nearly two dozen articles, and I’ll keep harping on it until I see consistent dedication to this amazing medium.
- VO2Max matters for repeat season ability. Having great ability to use aerobic systems may help some sports. In others like basketball and baseball, it’s seen only as a way to keep a lower-level athlete disciplined or to keep extra kilos off the body.
- Microdose all elements that are part of sprinting. A few sprints at the beginning of practice is not enough. Small bursts of speed will train the neuromuscular system while small reactive sessions between practice and weight work support Small plyos sessions, not tap dancing with ladders and cones, improves power and reactivity and shows up in jump analysis. Mobility sessions that exclude other biomotor abilities are overrated and make athletes obsessive-compulsive about their bodies.
- Complete rehab sessions before the transition phase. I keep putting off writing a transition phase article, but I’ll take a stab at promoting a make or break component of development. If you’re hurt and stop rehab because the season ends, you’re playing with fire. Some athletes intelligently take a brief time off and then finish rehab. They can take a break while not letting a problem hibernate only to show up when training starts to ramp up the intensity.
So the secret to a great offseason for RSA improvement is to have real training time that is mentally rejuvenating and physically productive. The secret to in-season training is knowing that many small things add up. This isn’t marginal gains nonsense; it’s cumulative benefits from real training to fight the cumulative effects of fatigue.
Reconsider the Quality of Repeated Power
I’m a huge fan of developing the ability to be explosive over and over again. Lots of programs treat conditioning as an easy fix for lack of team speed, but many strategic solutions exist for improving RSA in a team sport. Use this article to decide what’s important for your sport and your situation, and experiment with improving systemic conditioning and speed that will show up in the game. Not every situation offers the opportunity to improve RSA, but sustaining qualities in a career can be done creatively when the science is crafted with some ingenuity with constraints.