Marching On Together: How Leeds United use sports science to help optimise performance
One of English football’s most prominent clubs, this season has seen Leeds United mount a strong bid for promotion back to the Premier League under the stewardship of Marcelo Bielsa.
Few teams have a stronger bond with their city than Leeds United, and the club’s performances this season have buoyed a fanbase that has been waiting for a return to the top flight since 2004. To understand more about the work that is being done at Leeds, we recently visited the club to find out about the role sports science has played in the team’s match preparations this season.
Behind the scenes at Thorp Arch, Leeds’ impressive training ground to the north-east of the city, a team of backroom staff are working tirelessly to optimise player performance and keep the club towards the top of the Championship table.
One of those people is Tom Robinson, a sports scientist with the Leeds United first team. During his three years with club, Tom has introduced Catapult technology to the club and refined the way Leeds apply performance data to balance tactical requirements with effective injury risk reduction processes.
“We’ve been using Catapult since the start of the 2016/17 season,” said Tom. “When we first started using the system we collected a lot of data and were looking at a lot of variables. Sometimes you can get lost in the sheer volume of data that is available to you, so it's important to really identify the key variables that are going to make a difference to your team.
“The key variables we're really interested in are total distance covered, high speed running distance, sprint distance, accelerations and decelerations," Tom added. "Around these fundamental variables, there are obviously other data points that are important at different times, such as maximum velocity exposures, heart rate responses to training drills, and repeated high intensity efforts. Catapult allows us to have all of this information readily available to call upon whenever it is needed."
For Tom, there are two main ways in which clubs use GPS athlete monitoring technology. The first is for workload management purposes to reduce injury risk, while the second is more performance-related as teams seek to recreate the demands of competitive games in training.
One of the biggest challenges for sports scientists is balancing the need for exposure to match demands with intensive fixture congestion. This is a particular issue in the Championship where Leeds are playing league games virtually every Tuesday and Saturday.
“When the Championship season is so congested in terms of fixtures – there are periods where we have one game every three days – you have to look at training in a different way,” said Tom. “We tend to look at it with a polarised approach, where the matches during the congested periods become the high intensity stimulus and training has to provide an opportunity to recover in between."
“Alternatively, when we have one match per week, we want to ensure we are not just maintaining fitness but developing it as well, so we’ll do a very hard, intense session that is very similar to an 11v11 football match with some conditions on it as well,” Tom continues. “You have to pick the right moments to stress the players, because if you do that too often you run the risk of upsetting the training stress balance."
When it comes to delivering that high intensity stimulus to the players, Tom and his team generally look to get the players accustomed to intensities that go beyond those they will experience in competitive matches.
“Intensity is the key marker we look for in the players’ data. There has been a lot of talk about the 'peak demands' of different sports, with some really good research coming from the Leeds Rugby guys," Tom explained. "This is where the Catapult data is used to quantify the most intense periods of matchplay, across bouts ranging from five seconds up to 10-15 minutes.
"If in a Championship game the average work rate is between 100 and 120 metres per minute, can we get the players operating at 150 or 160 metres per minute in training so they can get used to really intense periods?"
Tom believes that this exposure to high intensities has been one of the most important aspects of Leeds’ sports science programme this season, giving the team a physical edge on their Championship opponents.
“That’s been one of the key things we’ve done this year, and what we’ve found is that the numbers we get in training far exceed the numbers that we get in matches because we’re pushing the players hard,” says Tom. “There are periods in games that we’ve replicated in training, and that’s where we look to try and run over teams and beat them physically, allowing us to play our game on the front foot.”
Of course, all of the work done on the training ground at Thorp Arch has to prepare the players to meet the demands of Bielsa’s system. Under their Argentinean manager, Leeds have adopted a high-intensity pressing style that has been fantastic to watch but demands exceptional fitness levels from the players.
As the players have gradually grown accustomed to the system over the course of the season, sports science has played an important role in preparing them for the manager’s demands while balancing that work with appropriate rest and recovery.
“Our manager demands a high-intensity style of play, so I think having sports science support helps us to ensure that we’re getting the most out of our players whilst having an ability to feedback important objective data to support the way the manager wants to play,” says Tom. “I think it's important for us to continue working in this way and just take every game as it comes. Wearing the GPS in games allows us to know whether the players are adapting well to the training and so far we're happy."