Kimber Rozier, CSCS – Often times as players, we dread the words ‘get on the line.’ Your coach has just run you through drill after drill and you know what comes next isn’t going to be fun. But it’s no secret that in order to play rugby, you have to be fit.
Running around while tackling, being tackled, scrummaging, and more involves a lot of high intensity movements sustained for 80 minutes and the team that can execute skills under fatigue often comes out on top.
Even better, the game is much more fun when you’re not dragging to catch your breath, and being a fitter player can help set you up for selection at higher levels.
But how do you best prepare for match day fitness?
How can you put yourself in the best position to make a try-saving tackle, get up, turnover the ball and then support the 60m break down the other sideline?
Strength and Conditioning Considerations
In the game of fifteens rugby union, every player has to do the basics of catching, passing, rucking, tackling, and running at different speeds. Therefore, a certain baseline of general fitness can be benchmarked and then achieved through drills mimicking the in-game skills required to be successful.
In order to develop these adaptations, high intensity, anaerobic efforts should be matched with periods of incomplete recovery. The “work” can involve sprint work, scrummaging, and tackling/rucking, and “rest” comes in the form of lower intensity movements such as re-positioning, catching, and passing.
Adding in some proper strength training to facilitate function and prevent injury is crucial to longevity, especially for high school and collegiate athletes. As your bodies and muscles adapt to these new stimuli, make sure to balance the constant sprinting and pushing off the ground with pulling and posterior chain exercises such as glute bridges, rows, pull up variations, banded good mornings and band pull aparts.
You might be surprised at the volume of training you’re already doing just with practice and games, especially if you’re a multi-sport athlete. Taking steps to improve common weak spots such as hamstrings, glute med, lower trap and rotator cuff will not only make you a more dynamic, explosive and well-rounded athlete, but it’ll keep you in the game longer so you can continue to dominate.
Although all fifteen players are involved in the same game, there are some differences in physical demands between the positions. Backs do more repeated long sprints, forwards are involved in more breakdowns. Fortunately, loads of research has been done with GPS software to track elite professional rugby players and their movements. Bear in mind that the amateur and youth game is going to vary slightly from these numbers, but here’s a good reference point.
- Repeated 5 m sprints at high intensity but not reaching top speed
- Majority of work comes from rucking/mauling/tackling (isometric, anaerobic power endurance)
- Moderate intensity running for longer periods to get across field
- ~5000 total meters covered per game
Back row (and possibly hooker)
- Moderate to High intensity work capacity, covering a lot of distance
- Repeated 10-20m sprints at 100% intensity
- ~6000m per game
- Must mimic more game specific movements (ruck, tackle, maul, etc)
- Moderate to High intensity work capacity, covering a lot of distance
- Repeated 10-20m sprints
- Inside backs cover ~1000m per game of just sprints, so important to be able to repeat bouts at top speed for 80 minutes
- Scrum half covers the greatest total distance at ~7000m
- Other inside backs ~6000m per game
- Highest intensity sprints for a shorter duration
- Larger work to rest ratios
- ~5000m per game
- Repeated 10-60m sprints at 100% intensity
Keep in mind that your athletes have busy lives. Many of them are bogged down with work, school and other commitments, while lots of them are incredibly active outside of your two hours together a few times a week. Of course, there are many things to prioritize within that time frame so that you get the most out of your athletes on game day.
Skills, game plan, defensive alignment, etc. might be your main focus, but if you feel your team’s fitness needs work, you don’t have to take time out of training to make them run. Turn your sessions into game-like practices and get the full benefits of fitness, execution under fatigue, as well as decision-making and adaptation to game situations.
According to a GPS analysis done with over 100 age-grade rugby players from 10 different teams, games see athletes spend more time jogging, sprinting and striding, and the frequency of sprint efforts is much higher in games.
What you can do: Make your sessions more focused on intensity and geared towards specific fitness outcomes rather than increase volume. A good option is a small-sided game of continuity, quick transitions and shoulder hits.
In your practice plans, be sure to designate high, medium, and low intensity drills and games and organize them according to desired outcome. For example, preseason or off-week training may see more high and medium intensity activities, while days just prior to matches feature lower to medium intensities.
Again, high intensity is qualified as maximal, anaerobic effort in short bursts, with low intensity being submaximal efforts. Something you’d want to avoid is continuous sessions of high intensity tackling, scrum work, long sprints and a small-sided game followed by 30 minutes of strict, high intensity conditioning.
Remember: you want your athletes to perform on game day, and they’re not going to be able to if you run them into the ground.
Assuming you’re properly managing your training load, you can certainly add in conditioning-specific sessions. Below are a few of my favorite 15s conditioning exercises. During the off season, complete at least two conditioning sessions a week to see improvement, but make sure to balance your conditioning with your other sports, strength training, and recovery. In season, matches and training should come first, serving as your “conditioning” sessions, but feel free to do one of these a week if you feel you aren’t getting enough at practice.
Note: a good way to keep from over training is to know your resting heart rate. If you’re following good recovery protocols and your resting heart rate slowly rises over time, that’s a good sign you’re over training and should slow it down.
5 and 10 m shuttles:
- Work: Sprint 5 m, hit a ruck pad, backpedal 5 m, hit the ground, sprint 10 m, hit a ruck pad, sprint back 10 m, hit a tackle bag, get up turn and sprint out 50m.
- Rest: 1 minute
- Reps: Repeat 5 times
That’s one set. Rest two minutes between sets and complete 3-4 sets. As conditioning improves over the weeks, gradually decrease the rest periods from one minute to 45 seconds down to 30 seconds until you’re working at about a 1:1 work to rest ratio.
Figure eights with push ups
- Work: Start at one corner of the field, drop and do 5 push ups, sprint diagonally to the opposite corner, do 5 push ups, jog the try line, do 5 push ups, sprint diagonally back across (so you make an X), drop and do 5 push ups, jog the try line back to start. That’s one rep.
- Repeat 3 times without any rest
- Rest: 3 minutes
- Repeat 2-3 times total. Time the diagonal sprints. Start smaller and add a set every 2 weeks if you can keep relatively the same speed throughout all sets.
Kimber Rozier is a NSCA certified strength and conditioning specialist and Precision Nutrition nutritionist who holds dual Bachelor’s degrees in Exercise and Sport Science and Spanish from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She spends her time traveling the world as an international rugby player for the USA and her career in 7s and 15s has taken her to places such as Hong Kong, Paris, London, and Dubai. She earned a bronze medal in the 7s World Cup in Moscow and played fly half for the squad throughout 15s 2014 Rugby World Cup in Paris. Kimber has recently played overseas in Ireland, furthering her career with Railway Union, and now has returned home as an athlete with Scion Rugby Academy out of Washington, D.C.
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