What Does the Research Say About the Physical Demands of Ultimate?

by | December 10, 2015, 5:00am 0

Ultimate! Science! Ultimate Science! Today I’m stoked to discuss a recent article from the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. The paper Physical Demands in Competitive Ultimate Frisbee by Peter Krustrup and Magni Mohr tracks players during a game with heart rate monitors and GPS data.

Though the sample size is small, the article provides some quantitative data to go with what would otherwise be some obvious qualitative observations. Ultimate is a sport that requires bursts of high intensity activity interspersed with periods of recovery. The results of this research show how important it is to train for speed endurance. The research provides further support to the idea of interval training and other methods of repeated high intensity intervals for cardiovascular conditioning.


The research study had two main points. One purpose was to study the in game physical demands of ultimate. The second purpose was to measure possible correlation between certain fitness tests and on field performance.

  • Activity Patterns: Researchers used GPS and heart rate data from 13 players to monitor speed, distance traveled, and heart rate during a 54 minute match.
  • Fitness Test Correlations: The fitness tests used to test correlation are moderately related to the beep test, which some of you may be familiar with. Athletes were evaluated on two different, but similar fitness tests, the Yo-Yo IR1 and Yo-Yo IR2. “IR” means “Intermittent recovery”. The Yo-Yo IR1 has more of an aerobic component. The Yo-Yo IR2 stresses the anaerobic component more. Both tests are similar in that they involve repeated sprints with intermittent recovery periods.

Interesting Findings, Part 1

  • During the 54 minute match, players were only active for 26.4 minutes. That’s less than half the time! The remaining 27.6 minutes involved no activity.
  • Despite the above, players spent more than 40% of the match with HR in the range of 90% max HR. That’s a high intensity zone indicating a very large cardiovascular demand.

Okay. But what does this actually mean?

Interval Training in Action

The average number of sprints during the game was 17.5 +- 5.7. The average time between these high intensity efforts was 226s +- 113s. This means sprinting 1.5-2.5 seconds with 1.5 – 5.6 minutes between sprints. Not all of that time was recovery time. Some was high intensity running. Still, what this shows is that a small fraction of high intensity work leads to having a large percentage of time spend in a high heart rate zone (an average of 40% of match time at or above 90% max heart rate).

Practical Application

This principle,that small periods of high intensity work leads to high stress on the cardiovascular system, is how interval training works. Interval training can be done in a variety of ways. Some which can induce acid buildup in the muscles to help train the body to metabolize waste products better (and help you develop sprint endurance). And some methods of interval training can be done specifically to keep the heart rate high while keeping acid levels low, thus targeting the aerobic system more than the anaerobic metabolic pathway. This second method, which I prefer, allows for more frequent training sessions and faster adaptation of the cardiovascular system. You can read more about this in my previous post on The Science of Interval Training.

If you are interested in a conditioning program that uses interval training, you can download my Six Week Program for free here. It is meant for those of you just starting to get more serious about training specifically for ultimate. Anyone can use it and it doesn’t require a gym. Of course, you will get much better results if you pair it with strength training.

Interesting Findings, Part 2

  • The last 9 minutes of each half showed a large reduction in high intensity running (43-47% decrease) and sprinting (50-61% decrease).

The Big Opportunity

The most interesting finding in terms of potential for enhancing on field performance is the decrease in high intensity running and sprinting in the last third of each half. This indicates that if you can increase your strength and speed endurance relative to others, you will have a clear advantage over your competition. There likely is a greater opportunity here rather than obsessing with improving vertical jumping ability, which, while important, will not give you as much of a consistent advantage as working on sprint endurance.

At the end of the discussion section of the paper the researchers note, “Moreover, invasive measurements should be obtained to investigate the anaerobic contribution and potential mechanisms provoking the fatigue described in this study.”

“Invasive measurements” means taking a muscle tissue sample in order to look at acid buildup in the muscle. Studies on anaerobic fatigue are more difficult than studies on cardiovascular load. To truly study anaerobic indicators you need tissue samples shortly after exercise so you can see chemical components. This article is not specifically studying muscle fatigue indicators. Still, we know that the anaerobic metabolic pathway produces an acidic environment in the muscle, which inhibits muscle contraction. As you can imagine, this makes sprinting much more difficult.

Practical Application: Strength Training IS Endurance Training

Muscle fatigue resulting from anaerobic stress is why strength endurance training is so crucial for ultimate players and why it is such a large part of my programming. Strength endurance training vastly (rep range of 8-10RM) improves the ability of the body to metabolize and deal with acid buildup in the muscle tissue. Strength endurance training greatly improves repeat sprint performance.

One of the lessons I have tried to impart to the ultimate community is that strength training is endurance training.

Studies like this show how much of a role speed endurance, which is related to strength endurance, can play in on field performance even in a relatively short amount of time with halves of 27 minutes. To be clear, this particular research article made no mention whatsoever about strength endurance. This section is my suggestion based on my general knowledge, my own experience and the experiences of my athletes.

Cardiovascular Endurance

I’m not sure how robust the fitness test correlations really are with only 13 subjects. But they found a correlation between performance on the Yo-Yo IR1 test and total distance of high intensity running and sprinting. There was also a correlation between the Yo-Yo IR2 test and amount of sprinting in the last 9 minutes of each half. Neither of these results are surprising.

Some players conclude that because ultimate is so cardiovascularly demanding, they should spend a lot of time running or doing steady state endurance. However, this is simply not the most efficient way to enhance cardiovascular endurance and does not at all reflect what happens on the ultimate field.

Interesting Findings, Part 3

  • Performance on the Yo-Yo IR2 test (the one with a more anaerobic component) vaguely correlated with an athlete’s ability to perform more sprinting in the last third of each half.
  • Performance on the Y-Yo IR1 test (the one with a more aerobic component) correlated with overall sprint distance

What, If Anything, Does This Mean?

This is where small sample size makes these findings dubious at best. It seems like common sense that better fitness would correlate with more running, and that’s what the Yo-Yo IR1 shows. It also is common sense that better sprint endurance would correlate with the ability to sustain sprints into the latter portions of each half. It is surprising to me that the Yo-Yo IR2 with the more anaerobic component does not correlate that well with late game sprint output.

The problem may simply be the lack of data points. Thirteen data points in one game is not great for drawing a solid conclusion about correlation between a fitness test and what happens on the field. Or perhaps the Yo-Yo tests do not really mimic what happens on the field. Most sprint endurance tests involve short periods of active recovery. The Yo-Yo tests were developed specifically with soccer in mind. In ultimate, I would argue that the rest periods are longer and the sprints are shorter and more intense.

I still think sprint endurance tests are a valuable test for an individual who is trying to measure the effects of their own training with the goal of improving ultimate performance.

As I’ve written before, research in exercise science is difficult because there are so many variables. This is why training will always be part art, part science. It’s not wise to base your training plan around the results of any one study. Still, I hope this research article leads to more research on the demands of ultimate and a better understanding of how to prepare ourselves for the demands on the field.


Thanks to Sludge Output for the heads up about the latest in ultimate research! As you can imagine, published research about ultimate is rare. Know of others? Link to them in the comments.

Thanks to Alex Davis for his thoughts on statistical validity of the Yo-Yo tests.

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