One of the hardest parts of training effectively for rugby is the variable nature of the sport. In American Football, you have a fairly good idea of how long a play will last and how many plays you will have in a game. In a game of rugby on the other hand you may have 5 seconds of high intensity play or you may have 5 minutes of high to moderate intensity.
The best way to figure out how to train is to replicate game situations as much as possible and we now have some new data to help us with this. Recently, Ross Tucker, an Exercise Physiologist from South Africa who writes for my all time favorite blog, Science of Sport, used GPS hardware on players in Super 14 games to find out just what's going on out there. His full article can be found here and you should absolutely read it! In case you don't, I'm going to repost a few of his findings and offer some insight on what they mean to you and how we can incorporate the data into our training.
From Ross Tucker's "Physiological demands of rugby"
These studies have shown the following:
- A backline player will experience about 120 ‘impacts’ per match – an impact is any involvement in a tackle, ruck/maul, or collision with the ground. Not surprisingly, forwards are involved in more impacts than backline players, with about 300 per match. Of these, 70 have a g-force greater than 8g, and the majority of impacts, somewhat surprisingly, come in the second half (65% compared to 35%).
- In terms of running, backline players can expect to cover between 7km and 7.5km a match, while forwards cover between 5km and 7km, depending on their playing position (loose forwards covering the most distance). About 70% of the match is spent standing or walking, 25% is spent jogging, and 5% running at sprinting speeds. This means that for every second spent running, players will rest or move slowly for about five seconds.
- However, the real challenge lies in the number of times players have to change speeds, either accelerating or decelerating for short periods. The average ‘sprint’ is 20 metres long, and it happens 30 times a match, while fast jogging for 20m happens 90 times a match. In total, there are shifts in speed approximately 750 times per player per match, or once every three to four seconds. The challenge in terms of conditioning is to prepare players for this constant shifting of pace and direction.
- Forwards spend more time doing very high intensity exercise, and less time walking or standing than backline players (65% of the match for forwards, compared to 75% for backs). This is explained by the forwards having more ‘static exertion’ periods – scrums, rucking and mauling. The result is that overall, even though backs do more running during a match; they actually do less total work than forwards. For example, in an 80-minute match, a loose forward can expect to burn about 2000 kCal, compared to 1 700 kCal for backline players. This is 25% higher than what has been measured for professional soccer players. By way of comparison, a 90kg man running a half-marathon (21km) burns about the same amount of energy as a Super 14 player every weekend!
- Finally, the physiological load is actually greater in the second half of matches. Players run further in the second half, with more accelerations and short sprints, and there are twice as many impacts in the second half. More time is also spent doing high-intensity running and less time walking in the second half of matches, especially for forwards, which says that play is more continuous in the second half. It’s perhaps not surprising then that scorelines often remain tight for 50 minutes before opening up – the last 30 minutes is where the physiology begins to tell!
OK, good stuff, this data tells us a lot about how to train for our matches. It tells us how many tackles or hits we will make in a game, how far we will run, what kind of running we will do, how often we change direction and the difference between forwards and backs (also proves that soccer players are pussies).
One of the first things to take away from this is the type of running rugby players require. We see that 70% of the time we're standing around, 30% of the time we're jogging and 5% of the time we're at a full out sprint. On average, we see that 30 times a match we are sprinting for 20m and 90 times a match we are "fast jogging" for 20m. We can then look at the changes of speed or direction, roughly 750 times per match.
Based just on these numbers, lets look at what a 10 minute section of a match would include on average in terms of just running: 3.74 sprints of 20m, 11.25 fast jogs of 20m, 93.75 changes of speed or direction and about 7 minutes of staying in one place. Of course, this varies by position with the forwards running more and probably sprinting a bit less and the backs running less overall but probably with a greater number and length of sprints.
Next, lets take a look at "Impacts" per match; about 120 for backs and nearly 300 amongst the forwards. Again, the discrepancy between the positions is no surprise but it does give us a pretty good idea of how to block out a training program for each. In our 10 minute training block we'll have 15 "impacts" or high intensity bursts for the backs and about 37.5 for the forwards. Using this data, lets make up a backs and a forwards work out.
Backs: We're going to have these guys focus mainly on sprints, change of direction and some max intensity efforts. I'm going to go with a series of 1 -1 work to rest periods of 90 seconds, that is 90 seconds of work followed by 90 seconds of rest. During the work period we're going to have a measurable amount of work so we know when to stop the workout, I want my guys to maintain at least 90% of their fresh work capacity so they'll do as many sets as they can while maintaining that intensity.
The 90 sec work period will be done on the pitch. Starting on the goal line, the player will fast jog to the 22m line, do three bupees, fast jog back to the goal line, perform 2 power snatches at 60kg (more or less depending on strength but around 75% 1RM) then sprint as hard as possible through the 22m into a slow jog out to the 50m. Turn around at the 50, on the way back, have cones set up in a random zig-zag pattern, cones should be spaced every 10-20m. At each cone alternate between a sprint and fast jog. When you get back to the goal line repeat the whole sequence as many times as possible in the 90 sec period. If it's only one time, that's ok as long as it was a max effort. Rest 90 seconds and repeat until you fall more than 10% off your first effort.
Now, this workout seems a bit convoluted and it is because I tried to fit every element into one. You don't need to do this, focus on just one or two elements per workout and on occasion get crazy like the one above. Don't just stick to one time domain, mix it up but try to keep it somewhat applicable to the sport you're playing.
Lets do a forwards workout now. For the forwards I want more of a grinding workout so we'll do a 10 minute AMRAP session (AMRAP means As Many Rounds/Reps As Possible). Again, starting on the goal line we'll use our 60kg barbell (about 135#). Start with a barbell complex, power clean-front squat-thruster then bear crawl out to the 22m, then fast jog back to the goal line. Repeat this 4 times and the 5th time when your bear crawl reaches the 22m, get up and sprint to the 50m line and then fast jog back and restart then entire sequence.