– Written by Martin Buchheit, France




Handball is called a ‘transition game’ because players frequently switch between defensive and offensive play, and the game action is characterised by frequent intermittent running and sprinting. Technical skills, anthropometric characteristics and high levels of strength, muscle power and throwing velocity are the most important factors for gaining a clear advantage for successful participation at elite levels of handball leagues1,2. However, the importance of aerobic capacity should not be underestimated.


During match play, players run about 4 to 6 km3 at a mean intensity close to 80 to 90% of maximal heart rate (HR)4. Significant associations between maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) and playing level have also been shown1,2. In fact, elite players have to repeat more than 120 high-intensity actions during a game3; thus, a well-developed aerobic system is likely to be beneficial for metabolic recovery between these efforts5,6.


In terms of the methods used to enhance aerobic fitness, high-intensity training (HIT) has been shown to induce substantial improvements in maximal aerobic capacity and endurance performance7-9. In addition to the classic long intervals (1 to 4 minutes) and short intervals (10 to 60 seconds, interspersed with passive to low-intensity activity), the use of sprints and all-out efforts have also emerged in team sports5,10. These particularly intense forms of HIT include repeated-sprint training (RST) (in which sprints last from 3 to 7 seconds, interspersed with recovery periods lasting generally less than 60 seconds) or sprint-interval training (SIT) (30-second all-out efforts interspersed with 2 to 4 minute passive recovery periods). However, since running-based training can be perceived as unpleasant by players, and because maintaining technical skills is essential for successful handball performance, the interest in small-sided handball games has increased as an alternative means of improving players’ aerobic power/capacity. Through using this type of training, training time with the ball is maximised, while still maintaining other important handball components, such as agility, reaction time and hand-eye co-ordination. Further, training motivation remains high11-13.


In this paper, the integration of the different HIT formats in handball will be discussed and examples of their practical implementation in the field will be examined. This paper will also consider their respective effectiveness for improving the high-intensity intermittent running capacity and repeated-sprint performance in highly-trained young players.



It has been suggested that HIT protocols that elicit VO2max, or at least a very high percentage of VO2max, maximally stress the oxygen transport and utilisation systems, and may thus provide the most effective stimulus for enhancing VO2max10. While the evidence to justify the need to exercise at such an intensity remains unclear, it can be argued that only exercise intensities near VO2max allow for both large motor unit recruitment (type II muscle fibres)14,15 and attainment of near-to-maximal cardiac output. This, in turn, jointly signals for oxidative muscle fibre adaptation and myocardium enlargement (and hence VO2max)10.


For an optimal stimulus (and forthcoming cardiovascular and peripheral adaptations), it is believed that athletes should spend at least several minutes per HIT session in their ‘red zone’, which generally means attaining an intensity greater than 90% of VO2max10. Consequently, there has been a growing interest by the sport science community to characterise training protocols that allow athletes to maintain the longest time >90% VO2max (T@VO2max)10. However, in addition to T@VO2max, other physiological variables should also be considered to fully characterise the training stimulus when programming HIT. Anaerobic energy release and neuromuscular/musculoskeletal strain (acute fatigue and constraints) are likely the main secondary variables of interest following VO2data16.


Controlling the level of anaerobic glycolytic energy contribution during HIT sessions may be an important programming consideration. The high anaerobic energy contribution of some HIT formats can quickly deplete glycogen stores17, which must be considered when the time to recover from the sessions is limited (such as before competitions). Additionally, considering that training sessions associated with high blood lactate levels are generally perceived as difficult, programming fewer ‘lactic’ sessions might help in maintaining perceived stress at a low level during heavy training cycles16.


The acute neuromuscular load/musculoskeletal strain associated with HIT sessions should also be considered with respect to long-term performance development, possible interference with other training content and acute and chronic injury risk. Neuromuscular fatigue, if maintained for several hours or days after the HIT session, can have a direct effect on the quality of subsequent training sessions18,19 (both neuromuscularly-oriented as strength or speed sessions – that is, possible interference phenomenon) and on technical and tactical sessions in handball.


Despite limited evidence20, it is believed that residual neuromuscular fatigue post-HIT may reduce the force production capacity and rate of force application during the following (strength/speed) sessions, which can attenuate training stimuli for optimal neuromuscular adaptations. Therefore, handball players tend to perform low-volume HIT sessions with minimal acute neuromuscular load/fatigue18,19,21. However, in the final phase of handball competition preparation, a high neuromuscular load during HIT might also be needed in players to replicate specific game demands3.


The different HIT formats commonly used in handball are presented in Table 1 and categorised with respect to their expected acute physiological responses. In contrast to RST and SIT, HIT with short intervals and small-sided games (SSG) allows spending a prolonged time at or near VO2max. Interestingly, SSG are also likely to be associated with substantially lower blood lactate accumulation than the other HIT formats12. Neuromuscular load/strain is moderate during SSGs, and definitely lower than during sprint-based HIT formats (Table 1). This suggests that SSGs may be better suited than the other HIT formats for the days prior and/or following speed and strength sessions, which likely require neuromuscular freshness. Taken together, these data suggest that, in addition to their high specificity, SSGs are well-suited for in-season training, when coaches seek to maximise training adaptations while not compromising the players’ recovery16.



HIT with short intervals

Controlling running intensity

To ensure that athletes reach the required high intensity, using field running test performance is an objective, accurate, practical (HR monitoring is not required) and likely effective approach10. For a long time, the speed associated with VO2max (vVO2max or maximal aerobic speed [MAS]) has been the preferred reference running speed to schedule run-based HIT10. However, since this speed is only determined by an athlete’s VO2max and energetic cost of running, its use to individualise supramaximal (> vVO2max) intermittent runs, including changes of direction (COD) – as predominantly implemented in handball – is limited. For instance, players with similar vVO2max can present with very different anaerobic, recovery and COD profiles. Thus, programming HIT based on vVO2max/MAS for these athletes can lead to different levels of aerobic and anaerobic solicitations10. This prevents the standardisation of training load, and likely limits the possibility of targeting specific physiological adaptations.


To overcome the limitation inherent to vVO2max/MAS for supramaximal, intermittent and COD-based training prescription, the 30-15 Intermittent Fitness Test (30-15IFT) was developed22,23. The 30-15IFT is an intermittent incremental test (30 seconds of running at increasing speed, interspersed with 15-second passive recovery periods) that was designed to elicit maximum HR and VO2 and additionally anaerobic capacity, inter-effort recovery capacity, acceleration, deceleration and COD abilities24. The final speed reached at the test, VIFT, is thus a composite velocity that considers all physiological variables elicited when performing HIT, including COD. In other words, the 30-15IFT is highly specific, not to a specific sport, but to the training sessions commonly performed in intermittent sports.


In support of the logical validity of the test, VIFT was shown to be more accurate than vVO2max22 for individualising HIT with COD in team sport players22. This was exemplified by lower between-player heterogeneity in cardiorespiratory responses22. Finally, the 30-15IFT is also attractive because 70% of players assessed perceive it to be less ‘painful’ than the continuous MAS field tests25. For a complete description of the 30-15IFT protocol and associated materials (audio file and articles), the reader is referred to online sources26.

Implementation of HIT with short intervals on the field using the VIFT

Once the 30-15IFT is performed, the only requirement of the conditioning coach is to set the individual running distances on the field for each player (Figure 1a). Running distance is simply calculated from a set running time and the chosen percentage of VIFT. For example, for a player with a VIFT=19 km/hour, and for a 15 second – 15 second HIT ran at 95% of VIFT, the target distance will be:


  • (19/3.6) × 0.95 × 15=75 m
  • (19 is divided by 3.6 to convert the speed from km/hour to m/second, for convenience).


This can be repeated for each single player or at least for players grouped by VIFT (with 1 km/hour groups). A spread sheet that completes this calculation for 15 players at a time is available online26.


Since most runs have to be performed with COD in handball, the time needed for a COD has to be considered when calculating the target running distance in order to ensure a similar cardiorespiratory load in comparison with straight-line runs. Not surprisingly, covering the same distance with COD during the same time substantially increases the relative exercise intensity27 (which is related to the number of CODs and actual running speed)28. Along these lines, the COD correction factor can vary between 3 and 30%. While stronger scientific evidence is still lacking, players’ height and training volume might have to be taken into account for individual adjustments, with smaller and more trained athletes presenting with better COD ability29, thereby requiring a lower correction factor. At present, in the abovementioned spreadsheet, the correction factor is still not individualised and is based on an average player’s profile. However, this is enough to begin with, since the difference will not be greater than 1 to 2 m, and the distance can still be modified a posteriori, if needed. Taking the abovementioned example, a player running at 95% VIFT over a 40-m shuttle will have to cover 71 m (instead of 75 m in a straight line). If the shuttle length is divided by two (20-m shuttle), the distance to cover drops to 65 m29.


To make HIT with short intervals more handball-specific, the ball can be used on different occasions. For example, the players can run together and continuously pass the ball to each other, before the last player with the ball at the end shoots at the goal (Figure 1a). A further way to individualise HIT with short intervals is to use the position-specific work/rest ratio and/or effort distributions during games3. In this setting, wingers would need to perform HIT with more intense runs interspersed with longer rest periods (for example, 10 seconds [110%] / 20 seconds [passive]) than backs (20 seconds [95%] / 20 seconds [jog] or 30 seconds [90%] / 30 seconds [jog])3.


Finally, introducing specific movement patterns as defensive actions into short intervals is also possible; however, at least two important points should be considered. First, repeating these actions again and again for the entire duration of the interval decreases the effort quality, and is actually non-specific – that is, a defender generally reaches once or twice an attacker per defensive action – then the game is either stopped (technical fault) or continues with other players. Second, only using these kinds of movement patterns does not allow control over intensity, as with run-based drills. Thus, an attractive option is to combine the defensive actions for 5 seconds, with individualised running tasks for the remaining 10 or 15 seconds of the interval (Figure 1b).

Repeated-sprint training

RST consists of two to four sets of five to eight sprints of 15 to 30-m, interspersed with 14 to 25 seconds of passive or active (jog or ~45% VIFT) recovery10. This type of HIT is well-suited for team relay and counterstrike work (Figure 1c). Sprints can also be performed in shuttle (which would, from an injury-prevention perspective, decrease stride length and be likely to decrease hamstring strain16). As for HIT with short intervals, sprinting game demands can be used to design position-specific repeated-sprint sequences3, such as 20- to 30-m sprints vs 10- to 15-m sprints for wingers
and backs, respectively.


Sprint-interval training

SIT training consists of three to six repetitions of 30-second all-out shuttle sprints over 40-m shuttles, interspersed with 2 to 4 minute of passive recovery10. Given their intensity and duration, it is difficult to incorporate the ball during these drills, however, it can nevertheless be added at the end of the runs.


Game-based training

SSGs are often organised in teams with four on each side (excluding goalkeepers) playing over the full handball court (40 × 20 m)11,12. Coaches are requested to encourage players to achieve high intensity during the games. Typical handball rules are simplified to avoid game breaks that would unnecessarily reduce exercise intensity. For example, dribbling and defence contacts are not allowed, infringements of minor technical rules (such as ‘walking’ and ‘double dribble’) are not sanctioned, throw-on after a goal is immediately made by goalkeepers from their 6-m area, and coaches are always available to immediately replace the ball when it is kicked away from the playing area. Finally, all four players have to be in the opponent half of the court for a goal to be validated30.

The only study to date demonstrates that specially designed handball-specific 4 vs 4 games are an effective means of achieving a high percentage of VO2max during training (Figures 2 and 3)12 and may be perceived as less painful by athletes than classical high-intensity interval training. However, there is very little data on how to manipulate physiological loading during handball games. Recent data show that changes in court dimensions or game rules can be used, as in other team sports, to manipulate the acute physiological demands of handball games. While an increase in playing area had no predictable effect on HR responses during SSG, the greater the pitch area, the greater the running pace (Figures 1d and 4a-b)23,13. The lack of a clear effect of pitch area on HR responses could be related to the fact that, over smaller playing areas, the number of changes in velocity, COD and contacts increase, compared with larger pitches13, which compensates for the lower running-only demands23,13.


It is also worth noting that, because of the static phases and handball-specific muscular contractions, which increase HR independently of muscle O2 demands, HR responses during SSG become dissociated from VO2 values. Therefore, extrapolating metabolic responses from HR is limited in this special situation23. The running pace reached during four SSGs was actually higher than that during games3, which suggests that they represent an appropriate overload for both the locomotor and metabolic systems (Figure 4b). Interestingly, playing 4 vs 4 on the full handball pitch allows players to reach the same running pace as during short-interval HIT (Figure 4b), which is ~50% greater than game demands.


Finally, because exercise intensity cannot be controlled during SSGs – as with run-based drills – coaches would have to rely on players’ motivation to ensure they all engage at the required (likely maximum) intensity during the drills. However, because fit and less fit players have to play together (to preserve game-specific relationships between players), the relative work of the fitter players can actually be lower than that of the less fit players. A negative correlation (r=-0.88) was actually reported between relative exercise intensity during a 4 vs 4 SSG (% of VO2max maintained during the SSG) and players’ VO2max12. This suggests that, over time, the fitter players might not benefit enough from these drills to improve their aerobic power/endurance capacity. To overcome these limitations, several specific rules can be implemented. These include:

  1. Every time they release the ball, the identified fitter players have to perform two push-ups.
  2. Every time they release the ball, the fitter players have to place one foot on the court’s external lines.
  3. One identified fit player is always involved in the attacking team, so that his volume of play is increased.



There are limited data in the literature comparing the influence of different HIT-based programmes on the physical capacities of handball players. Figure 5 shows that both high-intensity running capacity (VIFT) and repeated-sprint performance (average time of six repeated sprints) can be improved during the season, after 4 to 10 weeks of HIT supplementation (~2 sessions per week, in addition to usual training) in highly-trained young players (~10 hours of training + one competitive game per week). Importantly, all changes reported in Figure 5 can be considered substantial because they were all small to large in magnitude, and clearly greater than the so-called smallest worthwhile change31 (the shaded area represents trivial to non-substantial changes).


The magnitude of improvement in both VIFT (r=0.56) and mean repeated-sprint time (r=-0.75) after HIT training (excluding speed) was linearly related to training duration (number of weeks). In addition, the magnitude of improvement in mean repeated-sprint time after HIT training (excluding speed) was inversely related to baseline performance (r=-0.68); however, this relationship was unclear for VIFT. The magnitude of improvement in mean repeated-sprint time (excluding speed) and VIFT was also largely correlated (-0.73). Therefore, while it is difficult to compare the respective effects of the different interventions because of the differences in training duration and performance baseline, the 10-week SSG programme was the only training method associated with large and moderate improvements in VIFT and repeated-sprint performance, respectively11. While in all these studies, only one type of HIT was used (for study design purposes), the optimal physical conditioning scenario likely involves a combination of all types of HIT supplementation (Table 2). Further studies comparing these HIT programmes over a similar duration in players matched for baseline physical performance are required to draw definitive conclusions.



While research in HIT in handball is limited compared with other team sports, the present data suggest that specially designed small-sided handball games can constitute an effective means of achieving a high percentage of maximal O2 uptake during training (Figures 2 and 3)12. Changes in court dimensions or game rules can be used, as in other team sports, to manipulate the acute physiological demands of handball games, with the larger the playing area, the greater the running pace – but not necessarily the HR. Despite the inability to tightly control the exercise intensity, as with generic run-based HIT (each player running at a given percentage of VIFT)29, the results from longitudinal studies in highly-trained adolescent players show that small-sided handball games may be as effective (if not more) as classical high-intensity short-interval training and RST to improve high-intensity intermittent running capacity and repeated-sprint performance32,11,33.

While the optimal physical conditioning scenario likely involves a combination of all types of HIT supplementation (Table 2), SSGs additionally allow to maximise time with the ball, while still maintaining other important handball components, such as agility, reaction time and hand-eye co-ordination. Such games are also likely to induce a lower anaerobic glycolytic energy contribution than the other HIT formats, and are generally perceived as less painful by the majority of players11,12. Therefore, the present data suggest that small-sided handball games represent an interesting alternative to traditional HIT, especially in-season (Table 1), provided that some specific rules are implemented to increase the relative exercise intensity of the fitter players. However, further research is still required to improve the programming of these games (such as the duration, repetitions, number of players, rules and playing position-specific formats)13, as well as their periodisation within the yearly training plan11.


Martin Buchheit M.Sc., Ph.D.

Sport Science Unit

Myorobie Association

Montvalezan, France





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