Posted on 13 November 2009.
How to get your rugby training right with the help of the Sale Sharks and Scotland captain Jason White
Rugby Union training
With the 6-nations looming elite players will be looking to maintain and even improve their match readiness, however whatever your level of play it’s a balancing act between over-training, getting injured and being match sharp at this time of the year as the season begins to take its toll
Rugby Union is uncompromising – it’s been described as a ‘collision sport’. With minor strains, bruises and injuries an inevitable consequence (as well as serious ones), players need to follow a carefully structured pre-season and in-season training programme. Matches last 80 minutes and constant changes in the rules have meant the ball is in play for a much greater period of time than at any time in the game’s history. At the top level, one to two matches a week are played.
Rugby is what the sports scientists call a ‘high intensity intermittent sport’. Sprints, tackles, grappling, jumps and sprints, for example, last a matter of seconds. Research actually indicates that players spend about 47% of the match walking and jogging, 6% running and sprinting, 9% tackling or competing for the ball and 38% standing. Rugby therefore relies primarily on anaerobic fitness with a reasonable level of underpinning aerobic ability.
Even more specifically further research indicates that backs perform more longer sprints in a game than forwards and have to produce these efforts from a moving (jogging) base, whilst forwards do more close quarters skirmishing over 10m, often from a standing start. This type of activity tests different aspects of the anaerobic energy system (see box out).
Anaerobic energy systems
The immediate anaerobic energy system provides energy for up to 10 seconds and has no reliance on oxygen as a fuel source; instead it relies on the body’s stored high-energy compounds, notably creatine phosphate. Rugby forwards may need to emphasise this system slightly more in training than backs due to their playing requirements.
The short-term anaerobic system provides energy for up to 90 seconds. It has an ever-increasing reliance on oxygen consumption as the one and a half minute mark is reached; otherwise it relies on energy producing compounds again, such as creatine phosphate and glycogen (stored muscle carbohydrate). Backs may need to spend slightly more time in training emphasising this energy system.
Note to designer panel
Jason White (30) has played over 50 times for Scotland and has captained the si team. He’s been at Guinness Premiership side the Sale Sharks for the last five seasons. At the time of interview – the XX Kg 1m .. lose forward was side-lined with a broken finger.
JS: How important is rugby conditioning in the modern game?
JW: I think it’s absolutely critical … if you’re not physically strong then you are not going to survive at the top level.
JS: How do you stay in shape over the course of a long season?
JW: After pre-season (which lasts about 8-week Ed) you end up really strong, but during the season it’s more difficult (to stay in peak condition), you get knocks and it’s about trying to pick up fitness when you can
(Jason went onto explain that he had been ‘out’ for four weeks due to his injury and that this had allowed him to build up his strength and fitness)
JS: Do players train specifically for their position?
JW: With Scotland we did a lot of resistance band work to try to simulate the scrum engage with the forwards. And the front rowers also did a lot of heavy squats. For me as a lose forward I have to be strong over the ball, so I do drills to develop the required crouch position
JS: How intense is playing?
JW: Our Premiership season is non-stop. Then you have the November tests, when we play the southern hemisphere teams who are at the top of their game, then back to out clubs and into the 6-Nations and then (this year) the Lions tour if you are lucky enough to be picked. Physically, undoubtedly it is tough, it is about working with your conditioner, trying to maintain a good level of fitness and then maybe trimming back a little and then hitting hard again as the end of season as the tours approach.
JS: Is the conditioning at international level different to that at the clubs?
JW: They were different especially for the last World Cup, where we tried to peak at certain times. We also had a high level of competition going on between groups of guys playing in the same position and looking to make the squad. We were trying to push each other to see who was the best.
JS: Has the emphasis of conditioning changed since you have been playing the professional game?
JW: Yes, for example, you don’t go to Scotland camp and get ‘flogged’. I think that used to be more the case in the past. For example, with Scotland we might just do 1 set of heavy weight reps or 2 sets of 2. We aim to lift heavy weights explosively. (this emphasis on allowing the body to recover was emphasised by Sale conditioner Scott Pearson – see panel).
JS: What’s the most unusual fitness task that you have had to perform?
SP: Initially, but not now it was doing the core stability stuff, where you were lying on your back and ‘setting your pelvic floor’ …… initially I was thinking, ‘what are we doing here?’ Apart from that there was an army camp where I had to run around carrying a log on my shoulder, which I didn’t really see the rugby benefit, but I did from the benefit of team building and team morale.
JS: Who’s the fittest player and the fittest team you have ever faced?
JW: Probably Richie McCaw of New Zealand, he just has this ability to keep going right to the end … to be able to sprint flat out. And similarly team wise, probably New Zealand. My take on this is the way they play the game. They play at a very high intensity with the ball in hand week in week out, so I think they are conditioned to play at a fast pace.
JS: What fitness tips do you have for a good standard player?
JW: Get good advice, do your core exercises, like the bench press and the squat, chins and dips – everybody should be able to do them. Be able to handle your body weight and when you can on pull-ups, for example add a weighted belt and work against this.
Nutrition is also very important, get advice to ensure you get the right blend of carbohydrates and protein. Supplements (Jason is sponsored by EAS as are the Sale Sharks) are also important. I know that before the last World Cup when I was taking creatine and ‘Muscle Armour’ – I was in the best shape of my life.
Periodisation is the name given to training planning that uses specifically designed training phases, with one building on the other. The Soviet conditioning expert Leonid Matveyev applied the term and developed much training planning terminology and methodology in the nineteen sixties. His initial ideas often focussed on sports with clearly designated peaks, such as swimming and track and field. These peaks made it relatively easy to build a training plan that would get the athlete into peak condition when it mattered. Rugby players might have 30 plus ‘peaks’ (matches) in a season, this makes it impossible to specifically peak. So, in order to plan the training framework, rugby conditioning coaches, such as Scot Pearson (see panel) will often use a version of periodisation known as ‘undulating periodisation’ (or concurrent training). This allows for the ebb and flow of the playing season. The conditioning coach basically mixes all the key training ingredients – for rugby, weight training, speed endurance, sprint work, agility, power, circuits, weight training and recovery into a specifically blended cocktail that keeps the players in optimum playing condition. He also needs to assess the contribution to fitness that matches and rugby training is having. Pearson explained, for example, that very little contact work was actually done in-season to minimise injury and reduce over-training.
Scott has been the conditioning coach at the Sale Sharks for 6 seasons. He is part of a three man conditioning team that works closely with the rugby coaches to ensure the players reach matches in peak condition
JS: How many training sessions a day do the players do?
SP: Usually about two, we tend to combine sessions, for example we might do a short weights session and then go straight onto the pitch to do some speed work, or the forwards will follow their strength work with live scrums
JS: What’s the rational for that?
SP: We use scrums from a conditioning point of view, the players have to push bodies – that’s a heavy weight. We pre-load them with the weights and fatigue them a little and then they go out and do the rest of their conditioning on the field.
JS: Do you use undulating periodisation (see box out)?
SP: Yes, we’ve got all these training boxes that we need to tick tactically and technically through the week and some times you need to be a little inventive about how you go about achieving these things.
JS: How do you maintain player fitness in-season?
SP: It can be difficult, due the standard of play in the league and the cup, you can’t really say there is an easy game where you can rest a few guys – and we don’t really have a squad big enough to do that, so it’s about keeping the guys fresh. We do the majority of our conditioning during the pre-season and then as the season goes on it’s purely about keeping the guys fresh and ready to play at the weekend.
JS: How do you test and monitor the players?
SP: One thing we have done this season is to simplify our testing procedure. If you were looking at them from a scientific point of view you could probably pick holes in them, but they are easy to do and we can do them in a training week. They allow us to get a handle on how the guys are doing. We do 6 tests: a 10m and 30m sprint, a couple of anaerobic endurance tests, an aerobic test and a strength test.
JS: Are your weight training programmes designed to beef players up?
SP: Not really….what we are trying to overcome with players and coaches is the preconceived idea that you need to be big….. for a lot of players we have actually reduced their weights, for example England back Mark Cueto, he’s lost about 4-5Kg from this time last year. And you can see how his injury problems have been reduced, his speed has gone up and he could return to the England squad for the 6-Nations after last playing in the World Cup final (about two days after returning from Manchester Cueto was actually named in the England squad Ed).
JS: How difficult is fitting in your work with the rugby coaches?
SP: It’s not difficult….generally in rugby strength and conditioning is quite well thought of and most coaches regard it highly …. so most will let you do pretty much what you want, as long as the players are in shape to play at the weekends.
Fit for sport in-season rugby training – the workouts
Power maintaining sessions – power combination training
When time is short one of the quickest and most effective ways of maintaining power and muscle size is to combine weight and plyometric (jumping exercises) into the same workout, or as they do at the Sale Sharks weights with specific rugby training, such as scrummaging. These workouts trigger a heightened neural response in fast twitch (speed and power producing muscle fibres). To achieve this response you need to perform sets of exercises that broadly work the same muscle groups, for example the jump squat and the squat and the bench press and the plyometric (jump) press up, or the squat and scrum practice. The weights used should be in excess of 80% of 1RM to get the greatest transfer and reps should be between 6-8 – perform a similar number of jumps if relevant. When doing this training make sure your mind is in gear if you want to power up – don’t go through the motions.
A note on recovery and remaining mentally fresh
Players should be carefully monitored where practical in-season to ensure that they do not run the risk of becoming over-trained (The Sale Sharks staff work closely with the physio staff at the club). As has been indicated training must be kept fresh in order to maintain sharpness and match readiness and optimum recovery must also be high on the agenda. A change of environment, the introduction of a new coach, to take a specific conditioning session or the odd X-training session, such as volleyball at this time of the year may be just what is needed.
Likewise as Jason and Scott pointed out nutrition must be carefully monitored and maintained. Players may burn upward of 5000 calories a day on match and training days. Protein and carbohydrate levels need particular attention, to maintain muscle mass, size and energy. As a guide players should aim for 2.0g of protein per kg of body weight and 6-8g of carbohydrate. The refuelling process should begin straight after training.
Alternate hot and cold treatments and ice baths after training are often used at the elite level. If bumps and bruises and strains can be minimised in terms of their affects on training and playing then they are well worth utilising. Unfortunately the jury is out on whether ice baths, for example, actually work and there is some variation as to what is the most restorative protocol. However, if the player ‘believes’ (or is told!) that they work, then it is certainly well worth trying. For the club player (who probably thanks his lucky starts that his club does not have an ice bath) try alternating hot to cold water in the shower to a ratio of 1:2 (hot to cold).
Typical in-season week’s rugby training programme for a good club standard Union player
|Rest or restorative training/ Treatment
||Power combination training
||Weights Speed session
This schedule requires that players do their own training away from the two (Tues and Thurs) scheduled team workouts
Thanks also to EAS