What the Science Says – Measuring the Physical Demands of Popular Squash Training Sessions

23rd August 2021

This week’s new article sees us revisiting our ‘What the Science Says’ feature – a blog series taking a look at squash-related scientific papers and breaking down what the authors found from their research, and detailing the info that players of all levels can take from it to use to help improve their own on-court performance.

This week we’re looking at a study published earlier this year in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance titled ‘Quantifying Training Demands of a 2-Week In-Season Squash Microcycle’, authored by Carl James, Aishwar Dhawan, Timothy Jones, and Olivier Girard. Squash has traditionally been under-represented in the scientific literature, so a well-constructed study like this that takes a detailed look at assessing and measuring the physical demands of some specific on-court and off-court sessions, holds significant value to players and coaches of all levels.

Squash is a supremely athletic sport, in which fitness elements such as endurance, speed, agility, and flexibility are crucial to success. Due to these extremely high physical demands, a more sport-specific approach to squash training is typically recommended over more generic approaches. A standard training week for squash players will usually consist of a combination of on-court group drills/routines, individual feeding sessions with a coach, and practice matches – this is then complemented by a smaller number of off-court gym workouts and resistance training exercises.

Despite this kind of training structure being pretty ubiquitous across the sport, the authors of the study noted that there actually exists remarkably little information on squash training programmes and the internal and external training demands that these different squash-focused workout sessions elicit. There is a widespread acceptance of the extremely high importance of hard physical training for squash in the form of the aforementioned sessions, yet there exists a dearth of data that actually reliably quantifies the relationship between these sessions and the loads experienced in competitive matchplay and tournaments. Sport scientists generally dichomotise this training load into either ‘internal’ or ‘external’ – Internal load reflects the physiological strain an individual is experiencing and is commonly assessed using approaches such as heart-rate monitoring, blood lactate sampling and ratings of perceived exertion, while external loads represent the total physical work completed within a session such as the total distance covered, or number of high-intensity movements.

The research was carried out in Malaysia, using players from the Malaysian senior National training programme. In the authors words, the aim of the study was to:

“…quantify the training intensities and loads of ‘Group’, ‘Ghosting’, ‘Feeding’, ‘Matchplay’ and ‘Conditioning’ training sessions across a 2-wk in season microcycle, using internal and external metrics, including RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) from both players and coaches, to identify the most demanding sessions. It is hypothesized that ‘Matchplay’ will elicit the largest external loads and intensities, with the largest internal loads and intensities during ‘Conditioning’ sessions”

The types of training sessions identified by the authors as most commonly performed and thus highlighted to be selected for the study were presented as follows:

  • Group sessions – Conditioned games and training drills/routines with 2-3 players on court for a total duration of up to around 80mins, generally targeting a representative match intensity.
  • Matchplay – Competitive training matches played between equivalent level players – in this case, as part of an on-going ‘ladder’ or for tournament selection within the Malaysian National Training Centre.
  • Feeding – Individual session between player and coach usually lasting around an hour. Content and intensity reflect individual needs of the player. Also sometimes referred to as a ‘pressure session’.
  • Ghosting – Solo on-court conditioning, involving representative movements and simulated shots lasting around 30mins. Sessions are carried out in accordance with accompanying audio tracks, designed to target individual physiological needs.
  • Conditioning – Off-court, on-feet cardiovascular conditioning, mixture of 20-40 min steady state running, ‘long’ aerobic intervals (~2-3 min), or ‘short’ sprint interval training (<45 s).

The results of the study were very interesting

In contrast to the authors’ hypotheses, the highest training intensities and loads were not systematically observed during ‘Matchplay’, nor did ‘Conditioning’ systematically elicit the greatest internal intensities and loads. Rather, ‘Group’ sessions provided the highest training loads for most of the internal and external parameters measured. This was at least in part down to the longer durations of Group sessions, but it’s nevertheless clear that Group drill/routine sessions have a highly important role in preparing squash players for competition, and they can be expected to deliver meaningful improvements in fitness.

All of the sessions studied were shown to have value however, and the authors conclusions help to offer some insight as to when and how they might be best utilised within a training programme cycle to maximise competitive performance. Feeding sessions for example, were suggested to be well suited to include early in a training week when athletes are most fresh, in order to achieve optimal movement speed and preserve session quality. This reflects the combined aims of feeding sessions to include high intensity physical demands and significant technical demands.

Another interesting takeaway from the study, was the pattern of the coaches tending to underestimate the physical and mental exertions of matchplay, whilst conversely perceiving ghosting sessions to be harder than the players themselves actually reported. This is an important consideration for players who work closely with a coach as regards their training programmes. Having both players and coaches rate the perceived exertion of a session opens up an interesting communication channel, which may help to prevent situations of ‘heavy legs’ in the days and weeks before a tournament. The subjective nature of these approaches also reaffirms the need for quantifiable internal and external training monitoring techniques to aid coaches with understanding how their players are coping with the demands of training.

In the authors’ final conclusions, they highlight the importance of properly considering the duration of key training sessions to achieve planned physical outcomes. For example, repeated or lengthened Matchplay can be a very effective training tool to concurrently improve both physical and technical attributes when players are matched up to an equivalent level opponent. Similarly, Ghosting sessions characterised by a high density of external movement demands but with low overall volume, can be very effective in the weeks prior to and between competitions (particularly when highly individualised for each player, as they are within the Malaysian system). The ‘Group’ sessions on the other hand, were shown to provide that large volume of squash-specific cardiovascular stimuli and lower body loading, which may be especially effective at the beginning of the season, or when building up to a more specific pre-competition training phase.

The full study is well worth seeking out to read in its entirety, and is a very welcome addition to the sport’s scientific literature.

(Thanks to Carl James for his help in editing this article)


Gary Nisbet

B.Sc.(Hons), CSCS, NSCA-CPT, Dip. FTST
SquashSkills Fitness & Performance Director

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