What the science says: Multiple-sprint ability for peak performance

6th August 2015

In our blog this week we’re revisiting our ‘What the Science Says’ feature, a series where I take a look at a squash-related scientific paper and breakdown what the authors found from their research, and what info (if any) amateur players can take from it and utilise back within their own games.

This week, I’ll be looking at a 2012 study published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: ‘Physiological Correlates of Multiple-Sprint Ability and Performance in International-Standard Squash Players’ (Wilkinson et al.). One of the most relevant and interesting pieces of squash-specific research published in recent years, the study examined the relationships between certain physical testing scores and a player’s ability/world ranking, along with the fitness factors most important for the key squash-specific element of multiple-sprint ability (the ability to rapidly recover and maintain maximal effort during subsequent sprints).

Success in squash is due to a variety of physical and mental factors, and research has long suggested that a player’s level of fitness is one key part. Particularly at higher levels of squash, the ability to keep on working at peak capabilities before succumbing to fatigue has been shown to be a key performance indicator.

The authors in this study however, were less interested in the contributions of just pure endurance capacity, but more in identifying other aspects of fitness that might be of greater importance in matchplay performance. Modern squash is a multi-directional, high-intensity, multiple-sprint activity, and the authors were keen to explore precisely what elements of fitness discriminate performance in elite squash players, and what physical factors relate to the core multiple-sprint capability characteristic of squash matchplay. Their stated purposes for the study were:

“…to compare performance on a battery of fitness tests among elite-standard squash players on different tiers of a national performance program, to investigate possible relationships among test scores and player rank, and to identify fitness factors that relate to squash-specific multiple-sprint ability”

Due to the authors links to the National programme, the testing for the study was carried out on the entire population of the England Squash performance programme at the time, so would have included elite stars such as Nick Matthew, James Willstrop, Laura Massaro, and Alison Waters, as well as (then) young up and coming pros such as Adrian Waller, Joe Lee, and Chris Simpson.

31 players in total were included in the study (20 men, 11 women), categorised into 3 tiers: a) Senior Squad players (established elite senior players); b) Transition Squad players (younger elite players new to the pro tour); c) Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme (TASS) players (younger players of elite potential still in education).

An interesting note in the reporting of the test subjects current status at the time of the study, was that the average hours dedicated to training per week for the players was 20hrs (ranging between 14hrs and 26hrs). That’s a lot of training time!

The tests used on the players were a standard vertical jump test, a drop jump test (dropping from a small box and reactively rebounding immediately up into a jump), a change of direction speed test (working as fast as possible through a set cone pattern laid out on court), a multiple sprint test (same course as for the change of direction speed test, but with a multiple repetition protocol), and an endurance fitness test (bleep test). Players were placed into separate male and female ranking order (in line with world rankings), and test results were compared in relation to overall relative rank.

The authors found that for the men, there was a correlation between a player’s rank, and their scores for multiple sprint ability, fastest multiple sprint test individual repetition, and change of direction speed. For the women, the most significant correlation between testing scores and ranking came from the fastest multiple sprint test individual repetition (though multiple sprint ability was moderately related). Regardless of sex, full-time senior players outperformed the younger less-experienced TASS players in nearly all aspects of fitness, though differences were not so obvious in pattern with the slightly more experienced transition squad players. In comparison between male and female physical testing data, women’s test scores were lower across the board in all categories.

Interestingly, endurance scores were fairly similar across all 3 performance tiers, and did not correlate with ranking. While there is likely some threshold figure for which endurance capacity must be present for an individual to be able to compete professionally, the authors suggest from the data that endurance scores are not generally a massively important discriminating factor between elite-standard players – higher endurance doesn’t equate to higher ranking, in contrast to the high relative importance a lot of coaches place on training this attribute. The tests of high-intensity exercise capabilities (in particular the ability to sustain changes of direction at speed) better matched up with the respective rankings/abilities in elite players than just general aerobic fitness did.

That said, other studies using on-court squash-specific testing protocols have however leaned towards there being a closer correlation between endurance and player ranking. While this is an area that needs to be investigated further before firm conclusion can be drawn then, the results of this study would certainly appear to support the downplaying of the importance of non-specific general endurance in favour of more squash-specific training – something we certainly endorse with our wide variety of physical conditioning content here at SquashSkills.

On balance, the authors of the study highlight multiple sprint ability as perhaps the key physical performance factor for elite squash players, in line with other research that has concluded similarly. These repeated sprints are integral to modern elite squash matchplay, and this element was most closely related to the fitness test scores achieved in change of direction speed and fastest multiple sprint test repetition, and to a more moderate extent reactive strength (probably due to reactive strengths role in quick change of direction speed).

This study then highlights the key importance of certain elements of fitness to the squash player, particularly multiple sprint ability (and the lower body explosive power that contributes to it) in regards to elite level squash, where high-intensity variable-direction capabilities are crucial for success. This research was conducted with elite level players, where the demands of the sport may be different to that at the club level – while it’s not always possible to take such conclusions and directly extrapolate to other levels of the game however, an awareness of the importance of certain specific physical attributes beyond just standard generic ‘fitness’ is certainly useful for players of all levels.

Gary Nisbet

B.Sc.(Hons), CSCS, NSCA-CPT, Dip. FTST
Squashskills Fitness & Performance Director

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