Speed, acceleration, and endurance are some physical skills that allow you to be successful on the field. You only have a finite amount of time and energy to invest in training and improving yourself in these skills. How much energy would you invest into each? How would you train effectively to see gains, season after season?
Of these three attributes, lets take a closer look at endurance. Teams and players spend a great deal of resources (time and energy) into endurance training every season. Track workouts sound familiar? Year after year, it seems like every team – coed, women, college – is doing the track workout of the previous year’s UPA champions! Typical Ultimate track workouts seem to be running repeats of distances between 800 meters down to 50 meters. In the beginning of the season, longer runs (400-800 M) and it tapers to the short stuff (50-100 M) as the season progresses.
Since they are so prevalent, track workouts must be effective at improving the specific endurance required for Ultimate at the elite level. To look at the validity of that statement, I analyzed 86 elite men’s Ultimate points to look at the specific endurance demands of the game. After quantifying the specific demands of elite Ultimate, I propose track workouts at longer distances (more than 200 M) do not meet those demands well.
Stoppage – timeouts, calls, injuries, lengthy turnovers. If there was a turnover and it was a quick transition, I did not count that as a stoppage.
Active Play Segment – when disc is live and in play.
Total Point Time – the sum of 1 or more Active Play Segments.
Duration of an Active Play Segment was recorded with a stopwatch. Total point times were calculated by summing up all Active Play Segments for that given point.
The clock starts with a pull or resumption of play after a stoppage. The clock stops when there is a stoppage or a score is caught. Many points had no video of the pull and just a player starting the disc in their territory. I added 6-7 seconds to those points to account for the pull. Without the footage of the pull, I had to make a judgment call on whether or not it was the true start of the point.
Analyzed video footage of 85 Elite Ultimate points – 20 points of the 2005 UPA Club Open Final (Sockeye vs Furious George), 20 points of the 2008 Dream Cup Open Final (Sockeye vs Buzz Bullets), 17 points of 2007 ECC Final Sockeye vs Buzz Bullets, 12 points of the 2008 Worlds Open Final (Canada vs USA), and the remaining 16 points came from 4 separate games (Labor Day 08 Final, Dream Cup semis, Dream Cup pool play, and NW Regionals game-to-go).
Figure 1. Total Point Time in 85 Mens Elite Ultimate Points.
The total point time for each of the 85 points were sorted in ascending order and then charted. Each point also shows the number of Active Play Segments and the duration of those segments. For example, the longest point was 122 seconds. There was 90 seconds of play after the pull (blue), then stoppage 1, then 7 seconds of play (red), then stoppage 2, and finally 25 seconds of play resulting in a score (yellow).
Figure 2. Distribution of Active Play Segments in Mens Elite Ultimate Points.
In 85 Ultimate points, there were 138 Active Play Segments. This histogram shows the distribution of those Active Play Segments as a function of their duration. The X-axis are bins of time. 0-5 seconds, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, and so on.
The average Total Point time was 34.4 seconds. The average Active Play Segment was 21.2 seconds. 75% of all Active Play Segments were 25 seconds or less. A player does not sprint for the entire Active Play segment either. A player switches between starting a cut, stopping, or changing direction quickly with rest (standing, walking, jogging). A player expresses maximum intensity in brief intervals during a point.
At the elite level, Ultimate’s reputation for being an endurance sport might need to be revisited. When you take into account the average length of a point, 25-plus player rosters for seven spots on the field, 2-minute breaks between points, D-only players and O-only players, the term “Frisbee Football” becomes strikingly appropriate in certain ways. Total point times and average Active Play Segments suggest endurance is not nearly as important as speed and acceleration. Training for speed and acceleration should become a much higher priority and “running” more track workouts are not going to improve either skill significantly. I emphasize “running” because it is extremely rare for any player to be able to maintain max sprint speed for any distance beyond 50 M. Professional sprinters train all their lives to do this and this skill does not come from running long distances over and over again at slower than max speed. Some experts suggest you must run at 95% or higher of max speeds to effectively train for higher top end speed.
Track workouts do not optimally train for the endurance demands of elite Ultimate – which are multiple bursts of maximum intensity in a brief interval. They do not optimally train for Ultimate because most track runs are longer than 20 seconds, max sprint speed drops off early and can not be maintained for the entire run, and acceleration occurs only once while there would be multiple bursts in an Ultimate point. Although track workouts are difficult and can increase endurance, they should be just one training tool that is utilized out of many. There are non-track training methods that would demand maximum intensity in brief intervals and would produce more favorable gains in endurance, speed, and acceleration.
There is no “one size fits all” training program! Also, be wary of emulating your favorite elite player’s training regimen & nutritional practices…results may vary!
Your own current fitness and athletic background is a critical element in how effective a training program might be for you. The more of a novice you are with physical training, the more likely any random program will work for you. If are a beginner with relatively little athletic experience, you will see measurable gains in speed, acceleration, and endurance from just playing Ultimate. However, that will soon taper and you will need to work differently off the field to improve. You might decide to do the latest track workout, it kicks you in the arse, and you notice better performance on the field. As you reach the elite level, you will notice that most players are about the same speed and quickness on the field. The advantages you might have enjoyed earlier in your career are now gone and you want to reach the next level in speed and acceleration.
Without being too specific, improving the weaknesses in your strength and body control capabilities will lead to noticeable improvements with on field performance. If you pursue a solid strength foundation (i.e. 2x bodyweight squat, 3x bodyweight deadlift) and train your body to produce dynamic and explosive movements in all planes (i.e. Olympic lifts), it will build a foundation from which you can support the pursuit of higher levels of speed and acceleration.
In my next article, I will explore in detail one particular training program, CrossFit, and how it is effective at building the foundation from which you can pursue higher levels of athletic ability.
Xi Xia is a Coach and Co-Owner of Crossfit Portland in Portland, Oregon as well as a long -time coach and player. XX learned the game while playing and coaching with the University of Illinois.