How do international rugby players train for the physical challenges of the Rugby World Cup? As a personal trainer in London I’m always interested in the fitness regimes of different sportspeople, and it all comes down to the right combination of overall fitness and sports-specific fitness.
In the past, too much emphasis was placed on cardio training for rugby, and not enough on other forms of fitness. Particularly for the forwards, where muscular size and power output are the key requirements, cardio fitness is not the top priority. Cardio fitness is a higher priority for the backs (particularly the centres and the wings) but again it’s more explosive speed that’s needed rather than long continuous endurance running.
Cardio fitness is measured in terms of VO2 max, also known as aerobic capacity. An Olympic runner would have a VO2 max of 65-80 ml/kg/minute, a rugby back would need around 65 ml/kg/min, and a forward would only need around 45 ml/kg/min.
In the past it was also thought that cardio training was the best way to lose excess body fat, but it is now known that resistance training that builds muscle mass is the best way to lose excess fat, as your increased muscle mass raises your resting metabolic rate, which burns the most fat.
Too much emphasis on cardio training will actually impede development of muscle mass, muscular strength, and explosive speed.
That’s not to say that cardio fitness is irrelevant. You need a strong heart and lungs as a baseline for overall fitness, and cardio training boosts capillarization – the growth of new capillaries which send more blood to all the cells of your body – which in turn leads to more efficient muscle growth.
For scoring tries (and the crucial 5 points that a try earns your side) you need explosive running speed. Running 10km is not the ideal training for explosive speed – you’re much better off doing interval bursts of short sprints of 25 metres to 100 metres. An international player in wing position needs to be able to sprint 100 metres in under 11 seconds. This is anaerobic fitness rather than aerobic fitness, using fast-twitch (type 2) muscle fibres more than slow-twitch (type 1) muscle fibres.
Some of the fastest international players in the Rugby World Cup 2015 (all in wing position) are George North of Wales, Ken Pisi of Samoa, Fetu’u Vainikolo of Tonga, and Yoann Huget of France.
Muscular strength and power
This is the top priority for the forwards. To pack on muscle mass and combine it with power (defined as force x velocity) the optimum training regime must include heavy weight-training (squats, deadlifts, barbell bent-over rows, pullups, bench press) performed to failure, with explosive power in the first phase of each rep.
The biggest players in international rugby are the props, but the hookers and the locks and the flankers need significant muscular size too. These positions comprise the scrum, and these forwards are the giant bulldozers of rugby.
A prime example is Eben Etzebeth, one of the locks for South Africa, a 6 foot 8 inch mass of muscle weighing in at 18 stone 6lbs. His training is all about muscle-growth and power. Likewise for Paul O’Connell of Ireland, a 6 foot 6 inch lock forward, and Richie McCaw, one of New Zealand’s flankers.
Agility and plyometric strength
Rugby fitness is not just about speed and strength, you need more fitness attributes than that in order to overcome the opposition: you need agility and plyometric strength. When you’re running with the ball, you need to weave around opponents, perform side steps, take backward steps, run diagonally, change direction very fast, even leap over an opponent who’s on the ground. All this falls into the category of agility.
Plyometrics is the ability to exert the maximum force in the minimum time, such as jumping for the ball in a line-out, or kicking the ball to score a conversion or drop-goal or penalty. England’s Owen Farrell is a master of all these kicks, and his sports-specific training regime has clearly paid off.
High intensity interval training is a great way to build agility and plyometric fitness. Short bursts of running, mixed with box-jumps, burpees with huge leaps into the air, all feature in this kind of fitness training. Your ability to generate high-intensity bursts of energy, and to recover fast for the next burst, and sustain this for an 80 minute match, is the key to rugby fitness.
A very under-rated aspect of fitness is muscular flexibility. If you lack flexibility you can’t move your limbs through their optimum range of motion, you’re more at risk of injury from tearing a muscle or worse still a torn tendon or ligament.
Many a rugby career has been ended prematurely as a result of a torn cruciate ligament in the knee, and lack of flexibility in the hamstrings, calves and quads can contribute to this. However, no amount of flexibility can prevent ligament injuries if you bear the full force impact at the wrong angle, but these incidents can be reduced the more agility you have.
It’s vital to stretch at the end of every training session, particularly the leg muscles, holding each stretch for at least one minute. A thorough stretching session can take up to 20 minutes, and it’s time well spent.
Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London and author of this blog.