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Do players run less in the second half of a game?

24 May 2021   ·   

Professional footballers’ physical performance has been widely studied over the last 25 years. Several studies have shown that there is a loss of performance in the second half of games, specifically in the total distance travelled and the meters covered at near-top speed as well as in the number of sprints. This loss of performance could be caused by muscle glycogen depletion and demanding thermal conditions due to dehydration and consequent hyperthermia.1,2

However, some recent studies have suggested that the reduction in the distance covered in the second half of the game may be non-existent. Other studies have also revealed that the effective playing time (game duration after subtracting the time that passed between breaks, substitutions of players, goals, and injuries, i.e., the time in which the ball is not in play) can explain why the players cover fewer meters in the second half. On average, there are 108 interruptions per football game, which is halted for 38% of the total game time observed.3 The duration of these interruptions increases towards the end of the game, and this is likely to affect the players’ physical performance.4 In the German Bundesliga, it has been proven that the effective playing time varies enormously from match to match.5 During the first quarter of the game, the time in which the ball is in play accounts for 66.3% of the total time, whereas such value is of 55% in the last quarter of the game. The reasons explaining such data indicate that the teams that are winning when the score is even, spend twice as much time in the corner and goal kicks as well as in the fouls.6 The interruptions of the game are used as a way to kill time.7 In LaLiga from Spain, it has been stated that the effective playing time in the second half of games is lower, between 3% and 5% when compared to the first half.

A recent publication has analysed the differences in LaLiga’s players physical performance during the first and second half considering the total duration of the game and the effective playing time.8 The study, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2021, was based on the analysis of the 380 games played during the 2018-19 season. In total, 412 players’ performance who played the entire match was examined, getting 4,249 observations. The players were classified into 5 positional roles: Central Defenders (CD, number of observations = 1,231), External Defenders (ED, number of observations = 915), Central Midfielders (CM, number of observations = 1,013), External Midfielders (EM, number of observations = 512) and Forwards (F, number of observations = 578). Physical performance was analysed considering the following categories: total distance covered, low intensity running (0–14.0 km/h), mid intensity running (14.1–21.0 km/h), high-intensity running (21.1–24.0 km/h) and sprint (> 24.0 km/h). All these variables were calculated taking into account the total playing time and the effective playing time, and they were standardised to meters per minute. Physical performance was measured by the TRACAB tracking system used by Mediacoach.

The results suggest some very relevant conclusions:

(1) The effective playing time in games was 52 minutes and 18 seconds (54.9% of the total time). The effective playing time was significantly lower (p < 0.001) in the second half (25 minutes and 43 seconds, 52.5% of the total time) compared to the first half (26 minutes and 36 seconds, 57.4% of the total time).

(2) When the total playing time is considered, it can be seen how all the physical performance variables have a significant decrease in the second half of games, ranging from 5.86% to 11.09%. (See Figure 1).

(3) However, when the effective playing time is considered, the total distance and the low intensity running increase significantly in the second half by 1.52% and 2.91%, respectively. The distance covered at near-top speed and when sprinting was similar between both periods. These results apply to all teams regardless of playing at home or away, the score or the level of the teams.

(4) The difference in physical performance between the first and second half depends on the specific position. While external defenders and external midfielders kept up their performance in the second half of the game, central defenders and central midfielders significantly increased the distance covered when sprinting in such half. In contrast, forwards covered significantly fewer meters at near-top speed and when sprinting in the second half of the game.

Although these results should be taken with caution due to the complex nature of football, they can be useful to reconsider the relationships between playing time and players’ fatigue as well as to better understand the physical demands of the game. Rather than total game time, effective playing time should be considered to quantify the demands of the game more precisely.

Figure 1. Percentage of change in physical performance between the first and second half considering the total time and the effective playing time and standardized to meters per minute.Figure 1. Percentage of change in physical performance between the first and second half considering the total time and the effective playing time and standardized to meters per minute.

Carlos Lago Peñas


1 Di Salvo V, Gregson W, Atkinson G, Tordoff P, Drust B. Analysis of high intensity activity in Premier League soccer. Int J Sports Med 30: 205–212, 2009.

2 Mohr M, Krustrup P, Bangsbo J. Match performance of high-standard soccer players with special reference to development of fatigue. J Sports Sci 21: 519-528, 2003.

3 Siegle M, Lames M. Game interruptions in elite soccer. J Sports Sci 30: 619-624, 2012.

4 Carling C, Dupont G. Are declines in physical performance associated with a reduction in skill-related performance during professional soccer match-play? J Sports Sci 29: 63-71, 2011.

5 Linke D, Link D, Weber H, Lames M. Decline in match running performance in football is affected by an increase in game interruptions. J Sports Sci Med 17: 662-667, 2018.

6 Morgulev E, Galily Y. Analysis of time-wasting in English Premier League football matches: Evidence for unethical behaviour in final minutes of close contests. J Behave Exp Econ 81: 1-8, 2019.

7 Augste C, Cordes O. Game stoppages as a tactical means in soccer—A comparison of the FIFA World Cups 2006 and 2014. Int J Perform Anal Sport 16: 1053-1064, 2016.

8 Rey E, Kalen A, Lorenzo-Martinex M, López-Del Campo R, Nevado-Garcia F, Lago-Peñas C. (2021) Elite soccer players do not cover less distance in the second half of the matches when game interruptions are considered. J Strength Cond Res. Ahead of print. 2021.


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