Kimber Rozier, CSCS – Ah, the game of sevens. Since the advent of rugby sevens in the Olympics, athletes have turned their sights towards specializing in a sport previously reserved for the 15s offseason (Photo courtesy @usarugby photographer – Chad Wise).
However, sevens has transformed into an electric display of power, speed, skill and grit to last the entire 20 minute final. Research supports the obvious – the match demands of 7s vary greatly from those experienced in a 15s game. Therefore, the sevens athlete should be training differently than one would during a fifteens season.
During one match, elite sevens players can cover 1500 m per game. In a huge contrast with fifteens, a players’ work to rest ratio is about two to one, meaning for every two minutes of work they only get one minute of rest. Although a third of this is spent jogging, a good chunk of the game is played at a swift stride or faster, making heart rates stay above 80% of their max for most of the game.
Another major difference lies outside of the confines of one match, but rather in the fitness to survive and perform throughout an entire tournament. Amateur sevens tournaments often see players competing in five or six matches a day, while elite and international tournaments spread the load over three matches for two days straight. Needless to say, during minute twelve of game six, it’s going to be a battle of grit to get to that try zone. And a testament to the ability to recover.
Your aerobic fitness can help facilitate your recovery to keep your heart and lungs circulating oxygen, blood and nutrients in and out of muscles. Lifting, short, intense sprints, and contact work are mostly anaerobic, or without an oxygen supply to fuel your training. However, once that ends and your oxygen intake catches up, your body begins to shuttle metabolic byproducts out of the cells and bring in fresh, new nutrients (carb stores, water, oxygen, etc). In order to maximize these benefits, you have to train aerobically.
Aerobic conditioning can be completed by doing long intervals at submax levels, such as five minutes at 60-75% of your maximum heart rate, or two minutes at 90% max. This is where fitness assessments such as the Yo-Yo Intermittent Recovery test can come in handy, but solely for prescription of conditioning at a percentage of maximal speed. Don’t waste your time doing a fitness assessment just for the sake of it or as a tool to weed players out. Fitness can be improved with proper coaching, and some of your best players may just need extra time doing the hard yards.
Doing this type of interval training, rather than just running straight for 30 minutes, will enable you to run at speeds you may find in a game, and train your body to rest, recover, and go again.
From about 10 seconds to 60 seconds of maximal effort sprinting (most of rugby sevens), you’re approaching the edge of an oxygen independent energy system. This is where the mantra “train the way you play” comes in handy. With proper training in that energy system, you can extend the amount of time you can run at a higher speed. Your body is amazing, and it will adapt to the demands placed on it as necessary. Again, we want to work within the confines of the game. Work to rest ratios of 2:1 are ideal for elite sevens athletes, but as you’re improving your fitness, start with a 1:1 or even 1:2 work to rest ratio, and decrease the rest and increase training density as you become better adapted.
As athletes progress to peak fitness, maintenance can be prescribed in an undulating pattern, such as a day of long intervals, one with maximal intervals and one at supramaximal levels. High intensity intervals at around 15-30 seconds with comparable low intensity recovery can enhance aerobic capacity and increase power output. The key parameter to this improvement isn’t so much the specific time, but rather the intensity of 100% or above. Given that the majority of skill, tactical and team training during practice takes place at a submaximal level (as it should to facilitate learning and enhance accuracy), specific conditioning sets should allot for maximal effort.
Long distance intervals
Run at about a 8 or 9 minute mile pace for five minutes, rest for a few minutes to let your heart rate drop back down, then repeat 3-4 times for a total of 30-45 minutes. This might vary based on your current fitness level, as you may need to run faster or slower to reach a target heart rate. But the idea is – get around 30 minutes of work with 15 minutes of rest at a certain percentage of your maximal effort. If you know your Max Aerobic Speed, measure the distance needed to run at around 75% MAS for five minutes, or 90% for around 3 minutes.
80s, 60s, 40s
This gives you a set amount of meters to run and you can manipulate the time for slower/faster or fitter players. In this, you set up a start line, cones at 80 meters away, 60m in the other direction (20 m from start) and then 40m back (60m from start). Players will run a total of 180 meters, sprinting out to the first cone, back to the second cone and turn and run out again to the third cone. Depending on the amount of meters per second you’ve deemed appropriate for their 100% max, that designates the time allotted for completion. For example, if my MAS is 5m/s, I’d be allowed to run the 80/60/40 in 40 seconds (180/5 = 36, with 4 seconds added to account for two changes of direction)
Here you manipulate distances rather than time, and usually includes an “active recovery” as opposed to passive rest. Rectangular grids are aligned around the field, with the largest grid being for the faster/fitter players (more meters to cover) and smaller grids for less fit players. Athletes can move up and down grids as needed when fitness improves or they aren’t making their times. Passive rest means running at a slower pace for a shorter distance along the short sides of the rectangle before kicking it into gear and sprinting the length again. Shoot for 2-3 sets of 5-7 minutes total, with total “work” times not exceeding 30 seconds. [Editor’s note: Grid training can easily be done using the rugby field and lines to establish grids, adjusting the distance according to conditioning level of your players.]
Implementing the style of training created by Izumi Tabata to increase VO2 max, this involves working at a supramaximal level (i.e. 120% of your aerobic max) for twenty seconds, resting for ten, and repeating for eight rounds, four minutes total. How can you work at above 100% you ask? Well, this just means you are no longer able to utilize oxygen as the sole energy source. The intensity is therefore very high for a short period, with brief respites in between. During the actual study, the intensities used were about 170% and on a bicycle, so implementation in training sessions shouldn’t attempt to replicate his work.
A slightly lower percentage should be appropriate given the other stressors throughout training and the week. And this is where the fun comes in. You can do multiple sets of tabata-type sprints, change the variables (30s work, 15 seconds rest, etc), change the exercises to include up-down and shoulder hits, and more. This is where creativity runs free, but just know that the goal is to make the sets short, intense, and above your max.
Of course, we aren’t track and field athletes, so there’s more to conditioning than just running. Drills that involve repeated bouts of getting off the ground quickly and sprinting away mimic sevens movements. In addition, you’ll want to practice re-aligning, training the mechanics of running backwards or at different angles as well as the skills and tactics needed for games.
A good way to set this up is to introduce fatigue-inducing conditioning for 5-7 minutes at a time during sessions, followed by static skills (passing, catching, kicking, etc) and tactical sessions. An hour long session could be set up as follows:
- 10 mins warm up
- 10 mins Unit skills
- 5 mins conditioning
- 10 mins small sided games/team run
- 5 mins static skills
- 5 mins conditioning
- 10 mins tactical decision making under fatigue
- 5 mins cool down
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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