by Graeme Morris
When developing a winning rugby programme there are many areas the physical preparation coach has to consider. The following criteria are some of the more important variables to consider, which I will discuss in detail throughout this article:
- Understand the demands of the game
- Increase the power output (motor potential and technical mastery) of the competition exercise
- Increase the repeatability and sustainability of match activity
- Stay healthy and injury free
- Help build a winning culture
I hope this article gives you some ideas when developing your program or system. This is my current system that I use with the Newtown Jets (hence I am using rugby league as an example. However the principles for rugby union are essentially the same). Many team sports share similar energy demands and movements. As such I think this framework can apply to many sports.
What are the Demands of the Game?
Before developing a program it is vital to understand the actual demands of the game. This provides the coach with clues about what physical abilities, movement patterns and energy systems will underpin performance on the field. Based on this information we can then design the optimal programme:
‘Follow the player not the game’ Charlie Francis
When watching a typical rugby game on TV, the eye is drawn to all the impressive tackles, collisions and high intensity efforts. This leads many coaches to rely on high-intensity lactate methods to develop their athletes. But delving deeper into GPS data and time motion analysis the game demands tell a different story. As sprint coach Charlie Francis was fond of saying: “Follow the player not the game”.
Let’s take a look at some of the most comprehensive research on the demands of rugby league play, conducted by Dr Tim Gabbett:
Gabbett et al, 2012. Physical demands of professional rugby league training and competition using micro technology. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 15
Please note: Low-Speed distance (m) (0-5m/s), High-Speed distance (m) (>5m/s)
“The mean distances covered during match-play by the hit-up forwards, wide-running forwards, adjustables and outside-backs were 3569m, 5561m, 6411m, and 6819m respectively.”
If we divide the total distances covered by each position by playing time, we see that the relative distances covered were quite similar between the positions (93-101m/minute).
Below is an excerpt from another study by Varley, Gabbett and Aughey (2013) comparing Australian Rules Football, Soccer and Rugby League.
“When compared to Australian Rules Football or Soccer, Rugby League had the greatest proportion of long recovery times between high intensity efforts, and coupled with the low number of high velocity running and sprint efforts it would appear rugby league players performed little high intensity work. However when expressed per minute of match play rugby league players undertook the highest number of accelerations, total collisions and repeat high intensity efforts.
As rugby league requires the frequent evasions or tackling of opponents via change of direction, total collisions and rapid passing, players may not be permitted adequate space to reach higher running velocities, therefore the majority of high-intensity work is performed at a low running velocity”
Like most team sports Rugby League should be considered an alactic-aerobic sport. Experience tells me that the outcome of the game relies on who wins the high intensity activities that punctuate the game- sprinting, tackling and wrestling. There is 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.
Now that we have analysed the demands of the game, we can discuss which movements are most important to rugby league performance- hereafter the “competition exercise”- and how we should go about maximising power output when executing them.
Increase the power output of the Competition Exercise
Improving strength numbers in your squat and bench press is great, but ultimately nobody really cares unless this transfers to the field. Are you running faster, evading tackles more successfully, and hitting harder on first point of contact in the tackle, using explosive strength to win the wrestle? If the answer is “No”, then it doesn’t matter what you squat or bench pres.
To ensure transfer from training to the field, it is necessary to break down the sport and its primary movements (the competition exercise) and the degree of specificity between training exercises and the competition exercise (dynamic correspondence). Other than ball in hand skills, the most prominent movements within rugby league are:
- Running which includes acceleration and max velocity. Acceleration is the most important of these two, but both should be trained.
- Multidirectional speed- players must be able to evade defenders in attack, make their tackles in defence, position themselves optimally on the field in both attack and defence. Stepping, cutting, shuffling and decelerating are the key ingredients of multidirectional speed.
- Collisions- having a high degree of momentum at initial contact in both attack and defence (body mass multiplied by running velocity at the point of contact).
- Tackling- being effective in contact after the initial collision.
Ensuring transfer from training to the competition exercise
I like to improve maximum outputs in the Competition Exercise using the framework developed by Dr Bondarchuck’s classification. I have written about this previously here:
Since acceleration is central to rugby league let’s use it as an example:
- General Exercise (GE): Bench Press, Chin Ups, Dips
- Special Preparatory Exercise (SPE): Squat, Jump Squat
- Special Developmental Exercise (SDE): Hill Sprints, Sled Drags, Bounding
- Competition Exercise (CE): Acceleration
This framework allows us to develop our program so that a physical foundation of general abilities can be built in the earlier stages of preparation, which can then be built upon with specific abilities and movements to maximise transfer to the field of play at key times throughout the year (namely competition).
I like to use a mixture of exercises and tools to develop acceleration ability in my athletes, but horizontally orientated exercises like hip thrusts, KB swings and banded step ups, along with light and heavy sleds form a key part of my programme. This is because our primary goal during acceleration is to generate horizontal power (see Dr JB Morin’s research for more information).
A secondary benefit of specialised strength exercises is to subconsciously improve technique, thereby reducing energy wastage, and maximising the efficient application of force into the floor. I first became aware of this when I spent two weeks with Keir assisting the Argentina Los Pumas in their World Cup Preparation in 2015. I consider this “technical mastery” work to be the missing piece of most rugby programmes:
Motor Potential + Technical Mastery = Power Output
Athletes should all learn the correct technique and become efficient in the positions that are needed in the Competition Exercise. Not only will this improve power output of the specific movements, it will create a more efficient athlete who is less likely to get injured. Movement include sprinting, multidirectional speed, wrestling, tackling etc. Keir has previously written about this here.
Being able to repeat the outputs of the Competition Exercise
As Keir has written numerous times on Rugby Strength Coach- power without the fuel to back it up is like a Ferrari with no gas tank… impressive to look at but ultimately useless. Once power in the competition exercise has been developed, efforts must be made to increase how long these high intensity bouts can be sustained or how often they can be repeated.
A key concept to maximising power output in the competition exercise is Maximal versus Operational outputs. This idea was first introduced to me by James Smith:
Maximum Output = What you can do
Operational Output= What you have to do
For example let’s say we develop and improve our ability to run faster. The game (operational output) is therefore slowed down compared to our maximal output. This is termed Speed Reserve. This idea of thinking can occur for all elements of the Competition Movement. Not only does increasing the Maximal Outputs of the Competition Exercise make you more powerful, it also develops work capacity. This is because you are now working at a relatively lower intensity than previously.
Now that is out of the way, let’s talk about the aerobic-alactic nature of the sport: The table earlier showed the time motion analysis and GPS numbers of rugby league, which suggests the game mostly entails a brief period of high intensity exercise usually followed by a longer period of low intensity exercise. If we are going to excel on the field we need to train our energy systems accordingly by training all three: the aerobic glycolytic and aerobic pathways. For the purposes of this article the alactic pathway and increasing maximal power output in the competition exercise are synonymous, so let’s just move on to the other two…
Focus on the aerobic energy system
In my opinion there should be a focus on the aerobic energy system over the glycolytic energy system. There are many reasons for this. First of all training the aerobic energy system is not as intensive as training the glycolytic system and thus doesn’t tax the central nervous system as much. Also the better your aerobic system the less likely you are going to be pushed over the lactate threshold and into an exercise intensity that is unsustainable. The more aerobic an athlete you are, the longer you can work at a given power output before fatiguing.
The aerobic energy system also has greater trainability. Dr Vladimir Issurin has stated that the aerobic energy system is highly trainable, and only 30% of aerobic development is determined by our genetics. Conversely the glycolytic development is over 70% fixed at birth. It therefore makes little sense to prioritise training an extremely fatiguing system which offers little return on the investment of training time and effort.
Furthermore the aerobic energy system replenishes the anaerobic energy system. Whenever there is a high intensity effort that heavily taxes the alactic or glycolytic pathway, it is the aerobic pathway that clears away the byproducts that trigger fatigue and replenishes the substrates that fuel these systems. Joel Jameson has stated in order to improve the aerobic energy system we need to improve the oxygen supply, oxygen utilisation and the substrate availability. The aerobic training we perform should reflect these goals.
A key consideration in training for rugby is the competition between endurance and power training. It is useless being supremely fit if it impacts on your ability to express speed, strength and power. For that reason I’m a massive fan of the high-low system devised by Charlie Francis. It provides maximal opportunities to develop speed, strength and power on high days, but develop the aerobic system on the low days with minimal interference in either direction. Where is the glycolytic work you say? Well, I like to include a glycolytic block only just prior to the competition phase. In-season I do not train this system- games and training are enough to stimulate this system.
Examples of low day conditioning methods
Tempo runs are intervals runs that are used to build work capacity and aerobic endurance on low days that are complementary to building speed and power on high days. An advantage of tempo running is that greater volumes of high speed running (>5ms) can be performed compared to methods like MAS running, but at lower CNS stress and better reinforcement of efficient running technique due to longer rest periods.
The speed of running should be anywhere between 60-75% of max speed and each rep should feel the same. By adding low intensity calisthenics, medicine ball work, pommel you can increase work capacity over the entire body. This can be done as active recovery between reps as long as the body doesn’t become too fatigued.
Distances can range from 50-300m and the runs can be linear or multi-directional in nature. In my opinion one of the major benefits of extensive tempo is that it allows the athlete to work on the technical mechanics of movement. Tempo can also be used in the pool, bike, treadmill, etc. but it’s hard when you have high number of athletes. An example of linear and multi-directional tempo is shown below:
Steady State/Longer Intervals/Threshold Runs
This season I have added longer steady state runs, longer aerobic intervals and threshold runs. Lactate threshold is at approximately 85% MAS for many athletes. Therefore to sit on a low day running should be mostly under this intensity of MAS. It is feasible to increase intensity to 100% of MAS, however the duration of intervals would need to be reduced to ensure preservation of running technique and manage the build up of metabolic byproducts which create excessive fatigue.
This is quite different compared to many coaches who begin their conditioning blocks with VO2 max grids at 100/70% MAS and quickly advancing to 120% Eurofit and 130% Tabatas. My question to coaches who use this approach: why use a more intense method, if a lower intense method (one that is far more complementary to the high-low system) is all that is needed to improve fitness? Let’s get the most from the least, and keep more intense methods up our sleeve for when they are truly needed.
I have included lower intensity intervals for a number of reasons this year. Firstly it offers a nice mental change for athletes who can occasionally find multiple tempo sessions per week monotonous and boring. Working at lower intensities also creates different adaptations to the body when compared to high-intensity modalities. With lower intensity intervals we can increase stroke volume, aerobic enzymes, mitochondria number, muscle capillaries, haemoglobin capacity and higher rate of fat metabolism than would be possible with high intensity intervals. If we rely too much on specific game like conditioning optimising these adaptations is near on impossible. This type of conditioning can also be used with swimming, treadmills, bikes, ergo etc- beneficial for extremely heavy players that tend to break down with with the impact of running.
Cardiac output is simply steady state low intensity conditioning working at the heart rate that most stretches the ventricles of the heart during relaxation (approximately 120-140 beats per minute). Over time this increases the chamber size of the heart and enables greater transport of oxygenated blood to the muscles during exercise. Session duration should start at around 30 minutes, but can rise as high as 90 minutes. This training is idiot proof, so it is a great tool for amateur or semi pro athletes who have to spend a portion of their training unsupervised.
High intensity conditioning and the glycolytic block
If you choose to implement high-intensity conditioning methods in the earlier pre-season, they should be performed on the high-day as outlined in the high-low organisation of training. As much as possible this work should be combined with tactical-technical work to maximise training efficiency, and minimise the competition for recovery resources between this work and speed, strength and power work being performed elsewhere in the programme.
Though I favour an aerobic-alactic model for the majority of the year, glycolytic development is still an important athletic attribute in rugby league. If we look again at Gabbet’s research, we know the following about elite level rugby league competition:
Average Demands- Work: rest ratio= 1:5 with an average of 100m/minute
Worst Case Scenario- Work: rest= 3:1 and up to 180m/min
You can make a clear case for the inclusion of glycolytic work to adequately prepare athletes for the worst case scenario demanded by the game. I believe a 3 week block prior to the competition period is enough to stimulate a good level of glycolytic development in rugby league athletes. After this, trial games and competition games are usually enough to keep these adaptations without direct training.
There are obviously many benefits to glycolytic training including improving lactate clearance/tolerance, improved capillarisation and oxygen utilisation. However remember that the glycolytic system is highly genetic and has nowhere near the trainability of the aerobic system. You will also have to sacrifice speed, strength and power training to include this type of work. So be careful and strike the right balance.
I like utilising Joel Jameson’s methods of utilising lactic power intervals and lactic capacity intervals:
Lactic Power- 20-40s of maximum intensity work followed by 1-3 minutes of rest
Lactic Capacity- 90-120s of work followed by 1-2 minutes of incomplete rest
For reasons previously discussed I believe the intervals should be specific to the sport as possible. In rugby league this means lots of accelerations, change of direction, get off the ground, tackling and wrestling. These type of drills can adequately replicate worst case scenarios that may occur in the game.
I hope you have enjoyed this article and good luck with your training!