Ignoring Football's Work-Rest Ratios Is Holding You Back

There's no shortage of research on what's demanded of football players during competition, but many traditional football training drills don't measure up.

Football is a unique game.

No other team sport is defined by such short, furious bursts of intense activity broken up by extended periods of standing around.

Could you imagine if a basketball team huddled up for 25 seconds before each offensive possession? Or if there was a multi-minute break in the action every time a soccer team turned the ball over?

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Football is a unique game.

No other team sport is defined by such short, furious bursts of intense activity broken up by extended periods of standing around.

Could you imagine if a basketball team huddled up for 25 seconds before each offensive possession? Or if there was a multi-minute break in the action every time a soccer team turned the ball over?

Of course not.

Ignoring football's unique characteristics in the ways we prepare for the sport is a fundamental training flaw.

Dr. Matt Rhea, High Performance Coordinator for Indiana Football, has studied the work-rest ratios of football for many years.

In 2006, he was the lead author of a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that analyzed 30 football games at the high school, college and NFL levels to quantify game flow. Here's what they found:

  • A high school play lasted an average of 5.6 seconds.
  • A college play lasted an average of 5.13 seconds.
  • An NFL play lasted an average of 5.16 seconds.
  • The average time between plays during a high school drive is 30.8 seconds.
  • The average time between plays during a college drive is 31.29 seconds.
  • The average time between plays during an NFL drive is 31.99 seconds.
  • The average work:rest ratio on a high school drive is 1:5.5.
  • The average work:rest ratio on a college drive is 1:6.1.
  • The average work:rest ratio on an NFL drive is is 1:6.2.

We also know that NFL teams are averaging 5.97 plays per drive so far this season, and it's hard to imagine the figures at the high school or collegiate levels are far off.

And there's reason to believe the sport is actually slowing down—at least at its higher levels.

Rhea recently charted several NCAA football games from this season and found the average work-rest ratio was about 1:15. Part of this may be due to the increased proliferation of television timeouts:

Even if every player were to start each play in a sprinter's stance and run as fast as he could downfield completely unabated, how many yards could they cover in a little more than 5 seconds?

It would obviously vary by position and speed, but in a helmet and shoulder pads, maybe somewhere in the 30-50 yard range.

Of course, we know football doesn't work like that. The reality is that even the players who cover the most ground over the course of a game (generally receivers and defensive backs) run that far on a given play only occasionally. For linemen, it may happen just once or twice a contest, if at all.

Why do these numbers matter?

Because when you examine many traditional football training tactics, they seem at odds with these facts.

For example, if the work-rest ratio in a college football game is rarely under 1:6 (and is quite often closer to 1:10 in practice), and most plays take just 4-6 seconds, why does one of the most popular conditioning drills for the sport involve sprinting 110 yards in 16-18 seconds then resting roughly 45 seconds before doing it another 10+ times?

The length of the rest interval itself might not be too far off from what occurs in many football games, but the work interval (and therefore the work:rest ratio) is way out of whack.

"If there's a high endurance demand to a sport, then you definitely train differently," Rhea recently told STACK.

"Given the fact that there's just not an endurance component (to football)—certainly not at this level with the number of TV timeouts—the pace of play is slow enough where players generally will recover between each play. The whole point is that we should be training football players like speedsters, meaning they're running full speed, they get plenty of rest between sprints, the overall training volume is not really, really high—but it is really, really fast. (Going) slower than that or introducing too much fatigue into a sprint session turns it into conditioning, and conditioning in a way that certainly doesn't match the metabolic components we're seeing with the work-rest ratios…In a lot of interval-type training stuff or general conditioning-type stuff, people are knocking around work-rest ratios like 1:2 or 1:3. If you were apply that to football, that's a 40-yard sprint with 10 seconds of rest in between. That ends up being far more like conditioning than speed development."

We recently covered the unique methods Rhea and IU Director of Athletic Performance David Ballou have used to help turn the Hoosiers into a team of speed demons, and in their eyes, work intervals that are too long and/or rest intervals that are too short are an enemy of those adaptations. When taken to extreme levels, they can also be outright dangerous.

"Not only is it not developing speed, but it's probably hampering speed development. And if we look at where heat illnesses and heat exhaustions and the deaths from exercise-related exertion are coming from, it's generally coming from those (kind of) conditioning sessions which are just not warranted to begin with," says Rhea.

A commentary published in the Journal of Athletic Training from Scott Anderson, Head Athletic Trainer at the University of Oklahoma, pointed out that many deaths in exercising football players share a common theme: "unphysiological workload lacking sport specificity" in the deceased athlete's final workout.

One such workout demanded the athlete, a D1 strong safety, sprint 2,160 yards (or 1,975 meters) in roughly 12 minutes with a 1:1 work:rest ratio.

Yet a 2016 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found a D1 defensive back covered, on average, just 1,686.9 meters a game at a moderate intensity or higher (which the authors defined as at least 6.27 miles per hour).

Cramming an entire game's worth of running into 12 minutes just doesn't add up.

The reason there's often such a big disconnection between the actual demands of football and many of the drills used to prepare for it are because said drills are steeped in tradition—"This is the way we've always done it."

Fatigue is the enemy of fast, and when you try to cram too much volume into too short a window of time, athletes become physically incapable of running fast.

"You put a plow horse who can do really slow work for a long time next to a racehorse in a football game, the race horse is going to win every time," says Eric Donoval, Associate Director of Sport Performance for Wyoming Football. "We're trying to repeat high-intensity efforts, but if your best high-intensity effort isn't that high, we're just repeating average. We're just running slow for a long period of time, and that doesn't win football games."

The typical football play lasts about 5 seconds. Generally, the athletes who can run the fastest and exhibit the most power during a given play are at a distinct performance advantage.

Is your training preparing you to thrive during those 5 seconds, or simply survive them?

"When you look at most conventional football conditioning workouts, you see methods that are far more directed towards a sport that has a very high endurance component," says Rhea.

Re-examine your own training through the lens of what actually occurs during real football, and you may be surprised at what you'll find.

Photo Credit: FlamingoImages/iStock

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Topics: FOOTBALL | SPEED TRAINING | CONDITIONING DRILLS | HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL | COLLEGE FOOTBALL