Everybody has been in that glorious period of their rugby career when all they have to do to get better is show up. When the game and the stimulus of rugby practice alone is so powerful that your body cannot help but get fitter, faster, stronger, more powerful all at the same time. What a time to be alive!
Unfortunately as any coach or player who has stuck with the game long enough will tell you, these good times do not last. Eventually just playing or even training for the game does not give you the physical stimulation you need to reach your potential as a player. Your body becomes accommodated to the stress of rugby. The only answer is a different or more intense form of stress. This is the whole reason (thankfully) that strength coaches like me have a job.
If you do what you always did, you’ll get what you always got
This is as true in rugby as it is in every other field. Once you get beyond the early stages of the training career, the only way to ensure continued progress in the gym and on the field is to either train above the intensity of the game, or train below the intensity of the game. Training at the intensity of the game simply gives you more of what you already got.
Whilst it may be useful for learning how to implement new physical abilities in the context of the game, or execute tactical and technical strategies in a realistic environment, the real gold for strength and conditioning lies at the extremes of intensity that lie either side that of rugby.
Train above the intensity of the game
Training above the intensity of the game is simply another way of phrasing the principle of overload: the idea that to stimulate the body into physical adaptation, you have to push it outside of its physiological status quo. You will get very little complaint from coaches in this regard, so I won’t dedicate too much time to this part. In short:
- Sprint as fast as you can with good technique to build speed
- Move moderate loads (weighted implements or your own body) as fast as you can to build explosive strength
- Lift loads far heavier than you are used to to develop strength
- Work at intensities above those normally seen in rugby training and matches
Train below the intensity of the game
This idea seems to get a lot more resistance from strength coaches than seeking overload, the fact remains that sub-game intensity training across a number of physical abilities is necessary for optimal rugby performance. There are a number of reasons why:
Certain physiological abilities or qualities that underpin match performance require low intensity exercise to optimally adapt. By always training at game intensity we do not give ourselves the opportunity to develop these qualities. Cardiac output is a great example of this: high cardiac output is a key determinant of endurance exercise performance which requires long duration, low intensity training to optimally adapt. This is something that runners, cyclists and rowers have known about for decades but that rugby as a sport still tries to ignore.
Second, training below the intensity of the game allows us to develop key technical movement qualities that have just as a profound (if not greater) impact on performance than pure physiological variables do. In order to master key on-field movement patterns like sprinting, jumping, landing and cutting, we have to practice at slow speed in a deliberate manner. Hoping to improve these qualities at game speed is like hoping to learn the piano whilst playing a concerto: you just cement mistakes and accumulate needless stress.
Lastly, sub-game intensity lends itself to the high-low model of training that myself and many other coaches advocate as better for rugby performance than middling intensity. In this model, middle intensity work (like rugby training or matches) should be avoided for the majority of the programme because it has the double edged drawback of not being intense enough to optimally develop strength, speed or power, but too intense to facilitate recovery and adaptation. Thus if medium/game intensity type work comes into the programme, it comes in at the expense of likely more productive supra-game intensity work.
Fitting it all together
Obviously there are no hard and fast rules. Game intensity training activities will have a place in all players programmes, as will supra- and sub-game intensity training. However my belief is that once you graduate beyond the first few years of training (mid to late teens), players should make it a priority to perform the bulk of their training at intensities higher or lower than those seen in games or training.
Keep this in your mind if you ever find yourself slipping into a “speed session” of repeated efforts that are no faster than one sees in training or games. Likewise be wary of conditioning sessions that look and feel exactly like rugby practice. The chances are you are simply delivering more of the same as a physical stimulus to your body. Make a concerted effort to move the intensity up or down.
If you want to learn more about these ideas and how to implement them in your training, make sure you pick up 10 Commandments: Conditioning for Rugby. This is a 10,000 word ebook on how I condition my pro and amateur rugby athletes based on the principles of training above and below the intensity of the game. This includes a useful zone based system which clearly outlines when each training method should be used throughout the preparation. Let me know what you think of it.