Fitness Training for Rugby Union

Rugby conditioning: the fitness standards rugby players and coaches should be aiming for

In Brief

  • Logically, fitness training for rugby players should reflect their position’s specific demands - centres should spend more time on acceleration and sprint work, while props should concentrate more on muscle strength and size.
  • The objective of rugby conditioning for a forward is therefore to increase lean body weight at the expense of fat mass, such that body fat <10 per cent and body weight is 90-120kg, depending on specific position
  • For the backs, percentage body fat should be in single figures (e.g. 9.2 per cent) but total muscle mass is less important - the ability to use the muscle mass to move the body quickly over short distances (power and speed movements) should be the important areas of rugby conditioning.

Rugby Union is attracting a lot of media attention these days, mainly because of the showpiece World Cup competition, the arrival of open professionalism, and the relative success of the England team in recent seasons. For those who need reminding, rugby union is the form of the game where 15 players are on each team, where line-outs are used to restart play, and where rucks and mauls are the means of allowing a flowing attack to take place. Because of these distinct phases of the game, specific physical attributes are required for each playing position, most clearly illustrated by the obvious differences in body size between forwards and backs.

Demands of the game
Followers of rugby union will recognise the varied type of physical performance qualities required for the game, including the ability to accelerate or sprint at maximal pace for short periods (eg, three seconds), maintain a fast striding pace for the duration of the average move (eg, eight seconds), recover during differing rest periods in order to repeat these types of exercises, jump, change speed and direction, use upper body muscles, and so on. In short, sports scientists use the term 'high-intensity intermittent exercise' to describe this form of activity.

One method of determining exactly what kind of demands an actual rugby match imposes on a player is to video a competitive game, and later follow each player around the pitch while noting the time spent performing different activities. This has been done by researchers in Canada (Docherty and colleagues, University of Victoria, British Columbia) and revealed an average 47 per cent of time spent walking or jogging, 6 per cent running or sprinting, 9 per cent tackling or competing for the ball, and 38 per cent standing. While the low-intensity exercise periods predominate, it is the high-intensity periods that are the crucial, competitive phases of the game, and thus these should be concentrated on during training.

In more detail, a comparison between the centre and prop positions showed the centres to sprint for >3 per cent of the time, but the props for <1 per cent. In contrast, the centres spent <4 per cent of the time competing for the ball, whereas props were involved in this activity for 16 per cent of the time. Logically, the training structures of these players should reflect their specific demands - centres should spend more time on acceleration and sprint work, while props should concentrate more on muscle strength and size. Any coaches who still expect their entire squad to perform the same drills on training nights are sadly out-of-date. The arrival of true professionalism, and any minor law changes that may be made, will only serve to place more emphasis on fitness standards approaching those of track and field athletes.

So what are the fitness standards?
What should the players and coaches aim for, given the known demands of the game? A number of recent scientific studies help us to answer this question. These studies describe the physical attributes of current elite players, and several have appeared since organised squad sessions and scientific support have become commonplace. Much of the work has focused on Welsh, English or United States players. Other early work in the UK concentrated mainly on university-level players, and served to give generalisations of body size and shape only. Let's therefore look at the recent studies of first-class players. A complete presentation of information about a large number of elite players has been given by researchers at San Diego State University in California. Although not a great world rugby power, the US has a reasonable national team. Besides, data about national players is usually hard to come by and any insight is welcome. The data in this case was obtained during a national squad training week which involved 65 players. Basic findings that forwards were taller (average 1 87cm), heavier (average 99kg) and more muscular than backs (average 179cm, 81kg) matched their role as competitors for the ball in both set play and loose play. The additional finding of greater body fat among forwards is a common one, but one that is hard to justify. A certain advantage from greater body fat may be gained in contact situations from the increased momentum (body weight x speed) when compared to a lighter, leaner opponent. At lower levels of play, where body weights are generally less, this advantage may prove decisive. However, a player of similar weight with greater lean tissue is likely to be stronger, faster and more agile, as well as better able to control body temperature in any hot conditions. The answer for a forward is therefore to increase lean body weight at the expense of fat mass, such that body fat <10 per cent (as opposed to the observed average of 13.5 per cent for the US forwards) and body weight is 90-120kg, depending on specific position.

For the backs, the ability to change direction, accelerate and run at speed are the essential components of rugby fitness. In the US study, backs generally performed better on measures of speed, and of power relative to body weight. This again is consistent with the positional demands just described. For instance, average 40yd sprint time was 4.8secs, compared to 5.1secs for the forwards. Vertical jump heights were 62cm for the backs, but 58cm for forwards. Again, percentage body fat should be in single figures (9.2 per cent in the US study) but total muscle mass is less important - the ability to use the muscle mass to move the body quickly over short distances (power and speed movements) should be the important areas for training. (Carlson and co-workers, 'Physique and motor performance characteristics of US national rugby players', Journal of Sports Sciences, 1994, vol. 12, pp403-412.)

Breaking down the data
A study involving the Liverpool, Waterloo and Leicester teams was carried out at Liverpool by P. Rigg and T. Reilly. Professor Reilly has been at the forefront of the application of sports science to team games in the UK. Apart from the sort of findings reported in the US study, these researchers also broke down the data to distinguish between individual forward and back positions. Expected results were found in that second rows (usually ball- winners at the line-out) were the tallest players (average 197cm) and half-backs the shortest and lightest (in keeping with their role of gathering loose balls and evading tacklers). Front-row players were found to have greatest upper-body strength, while all backs appeared faster than forwards in sprint tests. Outstanding on a test of anaerobic power and capacity were the back-row forwards, who also performed well on all other tests. This perhaps reflects their role as links between the forwards and the backs, being required to undertake heavy physical contact during rucks, mauls and tackles, while also being expected to sprint and cover large distances at speed in support of play.

Low V02max values for the Welsh
An analysis of Welsh Division I players gave further evidence of the power and strength necessary to compete at the highest level. Researchers at Loughborough and Cardiff collaborated to find average height, weight and body-fat values of 186cm, 97kg and 11.3 per cent for forwards, and 178cm, 79kg and 8 per cent for backs. Lean tissue obviously predominates, with substantial muscle mass observed among the forwards. A sprint shuttle run totalling 40m with two turns again showed the backs to be better sprinters and more agile than the forwards (8.4secs compared to 8.7secs).

However, the V02max values of 52 and 56 for forwards and backs respectively were not as high as expected or desired. Although the most important periods of the game of rugby are of an intensity that requires anaerobic energy production, the ability to recover sufficiently between plays will depend to a large extent on the ability to deliver oxygen to the muscles. However, the ability to maintain high levels of both aerobic and anaerobic fitness simultaneously is a difficult one. (Nicholas and Baker, 'Anthropometric and physiological characteristics of first- and second-class rugby union players', Journal of Sports Sciences, vol. 13, no. 1, plS, 1995).

Other researchers in Cardiff, working as part of the Sports Science Support Service, looked specifically at any physical differences between the Welsh national squads at senior (37 players) and under-21 (42 players) levels. Very few differences were found in fact, except for the greater body weight of the senior players which could be identified as almost entirely extra muscle tissue. This finding was supported by the observation that the two squads' average 3-Rep Max on a bench press was far greater for the senior players. Average weights achieved for the whole squads were 83kg and 99kg for the under-2 1 and senior players respectively. Also of note was the large range of scores within each squad, with once again the forwards displaying greater upper-body strength both in absolute terms and relative to body weight.

Fitness changes in the England squad
An interesting study focusing on the English squad was carried out at Loughborough University, and this considered any fitness variations observed throughout a one-year period. The pre-stated aim for the players was a peak for the International season beginning in January.

Findings showed some subtle changes - aerobic power, speed (30m sprint) and body composition all improved over the 12 months. This showed the effectiveness of the current training programmes on these variables. Short-term changes were a particular reduction in body fat and corresponding increases in aerobic power and speed during the off- season. Closer analysis may have shown certain player positions such as props to increase in other fitness qualities concentrated on during the off- season - upper-body strength, for example. Speed also improved slightly during the season (end peak 4.3secs and 3.9secs for forwards and backs respectively over 30m) and a further reduction in body fat was noticed approaching the intended peak fitness time (13.3 and 11.4 per cent respectively for forwards and backs just before the major international matches). However, the heavy match schedules and reduced training time perhaps limited the range and size of improvements that might otherwise have been possible. 

Back to energy systems
One area of more theoretical debate concerning the demands and fitness requirements of rugby union is related to the exact energy systems used during a match. It is accepted that aerobic power is necessary to recover between intense bouts of exercise. It is also accepted that the short-term energy system, mainly the phosphocreatine system, is repeated stressed and should be concentrated on during training (ie, periods of intense activity for <10 seconds). However, the extent to which the lactic acid system is used during a game is not clear. Players may well testify to the fact that extreme fatigue (classically given by a build-up of lactic acid) is felt at times during a competitive match (and I can vouch for this from my own experience). However, as yet, scientific observation does not seem to support the idea that the lactic-acid system is stressed significantly for most rugby players. I'll discuss this and its implications for training in more detail in a later issue of PP.

Alun Williams

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