Peak preparation for September: A Rugby players training guide.
So….what a season 2020/2021 has been! Outside of the Premiership, it looks as though there will be no rugby for the rest of the season. For my team, Bournville, we were looking forward to a season in National League 2, after gaining promotion from the Midlands Premier League in 19/20. The league season was officially cancelled a while back, and now proposed local leagues / make-shift tournaments have been cancelled too. So, the question begs, after pretty much a year off playing rugby, how do I get myself ready for the 2021/22 season, in the hope that it will start in September!
With this blog, I will bear in mind that during this strange year, some players would have run more than others, some would have had access to weights at home and some would not.. But, whatever your situation, this will give you a good guide of how to move forward and get ready for a big season come September!
The first thing I will say is that if you haven’t started training yet, or have been pretty inactive during the lockdowns, then MAKE A START NOW! As mentioned in the recent podcast I did with Max, it takes typically more than 8 weeks of consistent training to build muscle mass. Improving speed can take longer, and it’s worth building up an aerobic base now before the dreaded pre-season! Don’t cram it all in last minute!
Looking at the ‘Macro’:
So you might be thinking, ‘where do I start’? well, I’m going to tell you. The first thing to do is think about your overall plan, month to month, from now until September. This will help you structure your training and help prioritise certain components at particular times.
As I’m sure you’ll already know, Rugby is a sport that requires a very wide range of components of fitness. I won’t get position specific in this particular article, but every player needs to have a certain amount of muscular size and strength, power, speed, acceleration, as well as having enough of an aerobic base to carry those traits for 80mins or more. So how do we train these traits?
The most effective way to train year-round is with a ‘vertical integration’ model. What this means in simple terms is that you will train all of those components, all year round. However, it’s pretty tough and pretty much impossible to train all components flat out month to month, so you will prioritise certain components.
Now, I know Rugby players are simple folk, so I won’t go into too much science here, but this is an example of how your next 7 months should look, in order of priority (the dates can obviously be a little flexible).
Feb 1st – March 31st: Hypertrophy Strength Power
(aerobic and speed work: technical focus and gradual volume accumulation)
Apr 1st – May 31st: Strength Hypertrophy Power
(aerobic and speed work: volume accumulation ‘hard work’)
June 1st – July 31st: Power Strength Hypertrophy
(aerobic and speed work: working towards high intensities ‘hard work’)
Aug 1st – Sep 1st: Power Strength Hypertrophy (reduce volume to coincide with pre-season games and de-load for the league season)
(aerobic and speed work: keep intensity high but reduce volume)
Looking at the ‘Micro’:
So hopefully now you have a better understanding of how your next 6 or 7 months should look. But how do you fit all of that in your weekly schedule?
A highly popularised way of training for field athletes, and something I have used with my athletes and myself now for a number of years, is working your weekly training into ‘high / low’ intensity days. Put simply, this means on your ‘high’ days you will work on high intensity components such as speed / strength / power, and on your ‘low’ days you will work on your aerobic base and your weight training will include ‘accessory’ and ‘hypertrophy’ work, so basically nothing that is too heavy and strenuous.
High days = Sprint / lift moderate weights fast / list heavy weights for low reps
Low days = Aerobic work / unilateral work / accessory work / moderate - high reps
A week could look like this:
Monday (low day): upper body accessory work / aerobic conditioning
Tuesday (high day): sprinting + plyo / lower body strength and power work
Wednesday (off): chill, or go for a long walk if you’re fat
Thursday (low day): upper body accessory / aerobic work
Friday (high day): sprinting + plyo / full body strength and power work
Saturday (low day): lower body accessory work
Sunday (off): chill, or go for a long walk if you’re fat
Depending on your work / life schedule, you can even split these into an AM and PM session. This would allow for a little extra recovery and perhaps a little more volume. If you can’t do that, don’t worry you’ll be fine, just ensure when you are sprinting you do that first.
The general rule of thumb with this method of training is on the ‘high’ days, keep the volume down (sets and reps), and keep the speed work fast and the heavy work heavy. On the ‘low’ days, ramp up the volume progressively, work on weaknesses, do plenty of unilateral work (single leg and single arm ect), do some bodybuilding and keep the aerobic work at a manageable intensity. (don’t destroy yourself for the high day). If you don’t currently have access to weights, do things like isometric work and jumps along with your sprints on your high days and tempo (slow and controlled, aiming for time under tension) bodyweight movements on your low days along with your aerobic work.
This is just a guide of how your week could look. You could also do 4 days a week, or even 3 or 2. It must adapt to you so that it is SUSTAINABLE. There’s no point going balls deep for a few weeks, before burning out or not having the motivation to continue. Start slow and build, you’ve got a lot more time than usual!
Quick guide to weight training:
Strength: The clue is in the name with this one. 10x10 German volume training is not going to get you strong! Why?...because you are capable of doing 100 reps, and therefore the weight is not heavy enough to create a stimulus (stress), and therefore force an adaptation. So, keep the reps lower and the weight higher and get your ‘bang for your buck’. Pick a hip dominant movement such as a deadlift / RDL / Hip thrust, along with a knee dominant movement such as a squat variation, along with a heavy upper body push and a heavy upper body pull (bench press, military press, pull ups, rows ect). Again, if you don’t have access to weights, you’d be surprised how much you can develop your strength with isometric work.
Why do we need to be strong? This could be a whole article in itself, so I’ll keep it simple.
Injury prevention (stronger things are harder to break). Rugby requires producing high forces repetitively, so you need your muscles, joints and nervous system to be strong enough to be able to absorb these forces.
Force production. The ability to produce high levels of muscular contractile force. A stronger player has a higher ability to produce both static strength (think scrums, mauls, breakdown ect), but also a higher base of force to convert into power (think high speed collisions, change of direction ect). Most rugby players want to be powerful and power = force (x) velocity! Without a good base of force (strength), you’re not going to be able to produce a lot of power, no matter what your velocity (speed) is! Without a strength base, all your power and speed training is basically you pissing into the wind!
Power: As mentioned above, power = force (x) velocity. So basically, a combination of strength and speed. For this, think of moving submaximal weights (anywhere between 30-80% of 1RM), and move this weight at high velocity. Olympic lifting variations, weighted jumps, med ball throws ect will do the job nicely. But remember the importance of being strong first! Take one guy with a 120kg deadlift max and one with a 200kg deadlift max, now put 100kg on the bar, and see who pulls that weight faster and therefore produce more power! Obviously, it will be the guy with the 200kg deadlift, as 100kg is just 50% of his max strength base, and therefore it is very light and he can move this weight very quickly. The other guy is working at around 80% of his max, and therefore the weight will move slowly, and the power production will be lower.
Keep the volume low for these movements (normally 3-5 reps per set). The reason being that what’s the point in doing 10 reps of a power clean? By the time you get to your 7th, 8th, 9th rep ect, you will be fatigued and therefore not move the weight quickly and therefore you will produce no power. You’re wasting your time! You could argue that it’s getting the heart rate up and making you fit, but why not doing something less technical for your conditioning work? Generally speaking, do not mix together your ‘strength’ and your ‘conditioning’.
Hypertrophy / Accessory work:
The fact that I’ve put ‘hypertrophy’ down here is actually a false representation of what hypertrophy is. By accessory work, we mean working on more variation in your lifting and it’s a good chance to work on weak areas, unilateral movements, planes of movement, and throw in a good bit of old fashioned body building! This is very much an essential part of your training and will increase the total amount of volume and time under tension you are doing which will contribute to hypertrophy (building muscle mass), as well as improving co-ordination, balance, building up weak areas, improving stability ect (the list could go on, but you get the idea). It’ll also help you fill out the jersey, which will intimidate your opponents!
The reason I say calling this type of training purely ‘hypertrophy’ is false, is because working at a certain rep range does not necessarily mean hypertrophy. Recent research from Brad Schonefield, who is one of the industry’s leading researchers of hypertrophy training, further strengthens the idea that you can equally build muscle mass with 3-5 reps, or 8-12 reps, or 15+. The reason I’m saying this is to make sure you don’t worry that you won’t build ‘mass’ when adding in strength training, or even doing some lighter accessory work, because you will!
Rugby is often thought of as a ‘power’ based sport, and that is true! However, you do have to be able to get around the paddock for 80mins too! As one of the leading Strength and Conditioning practitioners Graeme Morris states “There’s no point being great in minute 1 and shit in minute 80. Therefore, we cannot blindly rely on the glycolytic system to fuel activity. A high degree of aerobic development is required to continually resynthesise the anaerobic pathways and fuel low intensity activity”.
Research would back up the claim that Rugby is very much an aerobic / a-lactate sport. (a-lactate means efforts shorter than around 6seconds, think sprints!). So essentially we need to be able to run at a low intensity for a decent amount of time, and also be able to sprint as fast as possible for short periods of time. See field-based conditioning research below, from Gabbett et al, (2012) and Varley, Gabbett and Aughey, (2013).
So, when training conditioning for rugby, why do we always insist on doing absolute maximal lactate-based sessions, with an aim to throw up and to feel ‘dead’ at the end of the session? Now, having played the game for a long time, I can certainly say that some lactate-based training and maximal aerobic training is very much worthwhile and there are moments in the game sometimes where you are ‘flat out’ for 30-120seconds. However, training at maximal aerobic capacity and lactate induced sessions are massively taxing to the central nervous system and therefore need prolonged recovery, which will affect your other sessions, especially your ‘high’ days, so be sure to pick and choose those days very carefully. Despite the moments of lactate and maximal aerobic work, the meat and potatoes will always be having a good steady aerobic base and being fast! Therefore, my recommendation for 80-90% of your conditioning work would be to work on an aerobic / a-lactate basis. With this in mind, a great way to work is to build your aerobic base (lower intensity) into your ‘low’ days, and a-lactate (sprinting / high intensity) into your ‘high days’. Top tip: You’re not going to improve your speed if you’re tired and not running fast! On the speed days keep the volume low, have plenty of rest, and keep the efforts maximal. Research has shown that to improve speed, we must be working at >95% maximal intensity.
With your sprints, during your first month or two, try to work on technique by adding in sprint drills and also build intensity gradually. If you go straight into high intensity sprints, the chances of injury are very high because you’ve not built up a tolerance for those maximal forces! A great way to start for the first few weeks is by doing hill sprints. This way, you’ll obviously not be hitting maximal velocity, and it can be a great way to improve mechanics and power. Over the months, gradually move into flat sprinting and increasing distance gradually. Just a note, I wouldn’t often get players to sprint much more than 30 or 40m. So once you’ve done your hills, work on 5m accelerations, then 10m, and build up from there.
In regard to aerobic work, you can build up volume slowly. The great thing with the current situation is it’s a great time to build a really strong aerobic base. This is also important for injury prevention and to build up robustness, because we all know we’ll get beasted as soon as we get back to pre-season! Use this time now to build up an aerobic base, as well as building up tissue and tendon tolerance. Also, under fatigue, your chances of injury are much higher. So those moments in a game when you are at your most fatigued is when you are most likely to get injured. Try to reduce the chance by not only being strong enough to absorb forces, but also aerobically fit enough to delay the onset of fatigue! Millions of pieces of research on this topic which can be found with a quick google search.
For this, tempo running, which has been popularised by highly respected coaches such as Mladen Jovanovic and Kier Wenham-Flatt, is a good steady way to build this, and fits in nicely to the ‘low’ days, as it is not overly strenuous, whilst still producing fantastic aerobic results. An alternative is MASS training, popularised by Brisbane Broncos’ former strength coach Dan Baker, which works you at more maximal aerobic percentages. Just be aware with this that it produces much more fatigue, and therefore can make you tired the next day and interfere with the ‘high / low’ model of training. My aim in this article is not to critique or even compare these methods, they both work really well in my opinion, but what I would say is perhaps start with tempo and then perhaps you can do a few weeks of MASS in the crunch time of pre-season, maybe around July time.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog and found it useful. To summarise….
· Start now! Building a base now is essential
· Train everything all the time, but prioritise volume / intensity with certain things
· The things you aren’t prioritising, develop the skill, rather than the volume / intensity
· High days: Sprint / lift moderate weights fast / list heavy weights for low reps
· Low days: Aerobic work / unilateral work / accessory work / moderate - high reps
· Start off slow and build gradually. Consistency is key! Slow progress over a long time is better than fast progress over a short time