The best way to train for rugby…
This past week I had a great Skype conversation with fellow strength coach and former London Wasps colleague Tom Farrow (check out his great guest blog post on the blog from a few months ago). We talked about a bunch of topics for over 90 minutes on everything strength and conditioning: the best way to train for rugby, building a team and a training culture, strength, speed, energy systems, programming, and also some healthy bitching!
As per usual I walked away from our conversation feeling seriously guilty at how little I read compared to Tom, and also seriously impressed and motivated by the great work he is doing. Tom was responsible for the physical prep of all the back five players at Wasps this year and under his watch the already lightning fast Tom Varndell reach lifetime bests in the 10m and top running speed.
In particular one aspect of our conversation that sticks in my mind was about training philosophy. Tom pretty much summed up all of training in just a few sentences. Paraphrasing Tom, here is what he said:
Train for the game or train the abilities?
“In training you basically have to fall on one side of the fence. On one side is the who believes that the way to optimise rugby physical performance is to expose the players to as specific a training stimulus as possible. Identify the demands of the game, then train according to those demands. If the game is 15 seconds of work, 40 seconds of rest, that’s how you’re going to train.
On the other hand is the coach who believes that the answer is the maximal development of the physiological capacities that under pin performance. Without much consideration of the demands of the game, just concentrate on making the biggest, strongest, fastest, fittest, leanest athlete possible.”
So which approach wins?
I find this extremely though provoking, and it made me question which type of coach is right in their approach, and where I personally fall in this debate. Here is what I think about it all:
Ever the fence sitter, I think there is in fact value to both approaches. And I don’t think you have to be one or the other. Rather I think a really good coach or trainer will change his approach throughout the training year (and I think this is what Tom does himself).
The big problem I have with the ultra specific approach is that in most instances the stimulus of playing, training or simulating the game is insufficient to optimally develop the physical abilities that underpin rugby performance. Just taking energy system development as an example, during rugby practices we tend to draw on all 3 energy systems: aerobic, glycolytic and alactic. We know they are all taxed to some degree, but the physiological stimulus is inconsistent, difficult to control and leads to sub-optimal adaptation of each of the systems.
This example and others that apply to different physiological abilities is the whole reason that strength and conditioning exists as a field: because simply playing the game is not enough to reach elite levels of performance unless you are the genetic elite of the elite. Athletes eventually have to perform activities that are dissimilar to the game, yet provide the physiological overload they need to improve their on-field performance.
Training the abilities
Overcoming the above problem is the greatest advantage of the physiological approach to training. For example we know from rugby GPS data that players almost never hit more than 95% of their top speed during games or practices, and the experience of top coaches tells us that we have to exceed this threshold to develop maximal speed. This is why physiologically minded coaches perform stand alone speed sessions with big long rest periods that allow players to hit the necessary running velocities for the required volume to actually increase their running speed on the field.
There are other examples of how the physiological approach is superior for the development of on-field abilities, for example the use of energy system sessions that target the development of only one system, or even more specifically one trait or physiological adaptation of a particular system. As most of you reading this will be able to guess, this is how most of my athletes train most of the time.
A legend of the game teaches me a lesson
But there are still drawbacks inherent to the physiological approach, one of which can be highlighted from an experience of mine at London Wasps in 2010. Serge Betsen was in his final year of the club and at this point was at the end of a 15 year career, carrying all the injuries and knocks that go with that, and whilst still a great athlete was physically past his best. Yet during this year Serge continued to knock out performance after performance where he was either man of the match or close to it. I remember a colleague remarking to me after one match that “Serge was everywhere. He was the first to every ruck, the first in support, the first in everything”.
So how does a player who was physically past his best, and certainly less fit than other less injured and younger players on the pitch. Experience and knowledge of the game. I believe Serge had played so much rugby over his career, he knew how to get the absolute maximum of effectiveness out of his remaining physical development. He knew where to be and when, he knew when to work and rest, and he knew how to execute every movement whilst expending the minimum of effort and energy. This is where the value of rugby specific training and game simulation has its value in my opinion. It teaches you these skills better than physiologically orientated training can.
Putting the pieces together
So you can see that over the course of my career I’ve seen both approaches. I’ve seen players make huge physiological inroads through ability orientated training programmes, with results to match on the field. And I’ve also seen masters of the game lean heavily on their experience of the game and their familiarity with its demands to physiologically “punch above their weight”.
In reflecting on this debate has made me realise that I developed over the years to utilise both methods in my programmes. Coincidentally it also also the approach the Verkhoshansky’s developed in their block periodisation model, which can be summed up as:
Block 1- prepare the body for maximal loading
Block 2- utilise intense loading to maximally develop the physiological abilities that underpin performance
Block 3- utilise match/sport specific loading to “realise” the new found physiological development in a game specific context
Ignoring block 1 for a second (a post for another day), you can see that blocks 2 and 3 are simply the physiological and game specific approaches used in sequence. And this is a similar sequence that I like to use in my programmes. Whilst a mesocycle will never be 100% one method or the other, there is definitely an emphasis of one or the other present, whilst volume and intensity of the other method is substantially reduced.
What does your own training look like? Are you a physiological guy or a sport specific guy? If so, why do you do what you do? Leave me a comment on the Rugby Strength Coach Facebook page and let me know what you think of this post.