The Average Distance Run in Different Sports
The debate about who runs the furthest distance in different sports is always one which gets tempers flaring in pub debates; the fact is each sport has different fitness requirements of which endurance running is just one part. While distance run is clearly an important consideration, it is not the be all and end all. Just because competitors in one sport run the furthest distance, does not necessarily mean that is the most physically demanding sport.
The values displayed in the image above represent average distance values taken from published research materials and expert sports tracking systems. Clearly the distances run in each of these sports will fluctuate significantly, but these values allowed for the best representation of the distance values for each sport.
Football (or soccer) is the clear winner in terms of average distance covered during a match. The value shown above is the distance covered by the average midfielder. However, it is not uncommon for central midfielders to run over 13km in a game. Indeed one midfielder, of Otelul Galati averaged over 13km/game over the course of last seasons Champions league. This is due to the fact that central midfielders are fully involved in both the attacking and defensive efforts of the team. Strikers run less average distance than central midfielders, averaging closer to 9/10km per game, but run a much higher proportion of this at what is considered sprinting (> 21km) and high intensity (14km - 21km/hour) pace. Defenders can be expected to run a similar distance to strikers averaging around 9/10km. Goalkeepers interestingly can run up to 5km in a 90 match, which given the fact they very rarely move out of their box and merely spectate for a high proportion of every match may seem a surprising stat.
Field Hockey is the most closely comparable sport to football. Given that the positions on the pitch and the tactics employed are very similar, it is unsurprising that the average values are similar. Given the fact that hockey games last 70 minutes, as opposed to the 90 minutes in football, the differences in average distance run make sense. Similar to football, midfielders generally cover the greatest average distance, regularly reaching 9km/game, although research has shown that forwards in hockey also regularly reach this distance. This means there is less of a distinction to be made between the two positions than in football. Defenders run significantly less in hockey, averaging around 6-7km per game. Interestingly, hockey goalkeepers run significantly less than football goalkeepers, reaching 2km on average. However, this is not a surprise given that they are less likely to leave their area and are restricted by the clunky kit that they wear.
Tennis provides a significant jump down from field hockey. Despite the fact that tennis matches can last around 5 hours if they go to five sets, the average distance covered in tennis is much lower than football and hockey. Indeed, in the longest tennis match ever played, between John Isner and Nicholas Mahut at the 2010 Wimbledon championships, which lasted 11 hours 5 minutes, it is estimated that the two players covered around 9.6km (6 miles) each. So in the longest tennis match ever played, the players still did not cover the same amount of ground as a standard footballer would. However, this stat can be very misleading as not only is the tennis court significantly smaller than a football pitch, but also the majority of movements are sprints, meaning distance covered should not be the only stat considered. Indeed, in a five set match, the distances covered between the two competitors can vary greatly. In a 2007 US Open match, Novak Djokovic beat Radek Stepanek in an epic 5 set match. In this match, Stepanek ran close to 8km (5 miles), while Djokovic only ran 5.6km (3.5 miles). Indeed the values can vary greatly in tennis, as a player winning an easy game in 3 sets can run as little as 1.6km (1 mile).
Basketball and tennis are very similar in that the dimensions of the court limit the amount of running that is physically possible. As well as this, it is very similar to tennis in that a lot of the moves in basketball are high intensity. However, there is a common myth that basketball players run up to 8km (5 miles) in a standard game. NBA stats from the 2012 season show that the highest average distance run per game was 4.3km (2.72 miles) by Luol Deng of the Chicago Bulls. In very competitive games the majority of players on court will reach distances of 4km (2.5 miles), however, to average more than this over the season is rare. A lot of the movements in basketball are short, sharp and changing direction, so while a lot of running is required on court, the average distance levels do not reach that of sports such as tennis, hockey and football. There is also very little variation in distances run between the positions in basketball, although the centre does tend to run slightly less than the rest of the team.
American Football is the most interesting of all the sports regarding the average distance run during a typical game. The stat shown in the image at the top of 1.9km (1.2miles) is for a typical wide reciever. Were you to show the average stat for an offensive or defensive line the distances covered would be negligable. Indeed a recent bbc sport infographic estimated that if you were to include all of the defensive and offensive line players in the calculation of the average distance covered, the value would be somewhere around 0.32km (0.2 miles). This is a remarkable stat for a match that lasts an hour (of real live play), often taking up to 3 hours to complete an entire match due to the number of stoppages and time outs during American Football. Interestingly, defensive and attacking line players actually run significantly more during these stoppages and time outs when running onto and off the pitch than they do during actual live play. It is clear that the focus of American Football is far more on explosive power and strength, rather than distances covered.
As such, it is clear that just carrying out endurance training for team sports is not the most effective method of training. While clearly in sports such as football and hockey competitors do run very long distances, even for these sports endurance training does not produce sport specific training improvements. For example, in football a high proportion of movements are short sharp bursts of pace. As such, endurance training does little to benefit these movements in a game. However, it does provide a good fitness base from which other fitness aspects can be worked on, so must not be completely disregarded. This is where Interval Training becomes very beneficial for team sports. Interval training is high intensity intermittent exercise, during which high intensity periods of exercise are intertwined with rest periods. Interval training has the benefit that it works both your aerobic and anaerobic fitness systems, as well as the fact that it can be made sport specific. The fact that interval training can be used to cover all the movements that will be experienced during a match, rather than just endurance, makes it an incredibly useful and often underused tool for team sports. Hopefully this article has shown that judging a sport purely by the average distance run during it, while interesting, is not a stat that is fully reflective of fitness demands of that sport.
Are these average distances more or less than you expected for your sport? Do you think you run further than this when competing? Do you incorporate interval training into your team sports training regime? Join the debate in the blog below!
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