Pre-season is over, the warm-ups are done and dusted, it is now down to the business of competitive rugby and the start of the GUINNESS PRO12 for the Ulster squad.
|Physical Fitness defined||Needs of the Player||Demands of the Game|
|The Principles of Training||Periodisation & Year Plan|
Before examining the physical fitness requirements for playing Rugby it is important to clarify the meaning of physical fitness. Physical fitness is a relative term describing the level of development of one or more of the components of fitness. It varies from sport to sport. For example, being fit for Rugby implies that the components of strength, power and speed are well developed. In contrast being fit for a marathon requires a highly developed level of aerobic fitness.
Physical fitness for the Rugby player should be viewed in terms of General, Special and Specific Fitness. General fitness refers to the development of the key physical components of:
1. Stamina or endurance
4. Suppleness (flexibility)
5. Skill (also termed 'motor fitness')
Another important general fitness component that should be considered for rugby is optimal body weight and body fat. There is strong evidence to show that Irish Rugby players tend to be fatter compared to their international counterparts. This is a component of fitness that needs to be addressed at the young player level.
All Rugby players will require a reasonable level of the 5 fitness components. The higher the level of play the greater the level of fitness required to meet the demands of the game. In addition it needs to be recognised that there are different fitness demands on the player depending on the position in which he plays. Special fitness Special fitness training is concerned with providing training methods that link General preparation with more game related activities. For example, if a player is to transfer the strength developed in the Gym into play he should follow a progression from General weight training to special exercises (such as medicine ball training) through to position specific training. In this case medicine ball work can be seen to bridge the gap between the weight training room and the activity of the game. Other special training drills and exercises include core training, SAQ training and power drills to mention but a few.
Specific fitness is concerned with the demands of a certain position or activity. For example the specific position 'strength' required for a prop is different to the strength required by an out-half. The prop will require a very high level of maximum isometric, concentric and eccentric strength, whereas the out-half will require a good level of these strength types but his primary emphasis will be on power development.
In order to plan the type of fitness training required it is crucial that the coach understands the concept of 'Periodisation'. This is the process of planning and organising the year's general, sepcial and specific fitness, recovery strategies and game content throughout the different periods of the year. However, before considering this very important planning process it is important to analyse the physical NEEDS of the young player and the DEMANDS of the Game. Such an analysis will provide the coach with the background information that is essential prior to filling in the training programme detail. back to top
The development of a young player's physical fitness should focus on general motor fitness rather than on specific rugby position fitness. The latter will improve as a direct result of improved motor fitness. Motor fitness consists of four key elements namely, locomotion, balance, manipulation and awareness skills. A brief description of these elements follows:
Locomotion consists of walking, jogging, cruising, sprinting, turning at pace, side-stepping, evading, running with a forward drive, moving sideways, backwards …. the list goes on.
Balance consists of static and dynamic balance. During static activities this means being able to maintain balance while in different stances, while being opposed by a partner or while changing direction at pace. This is best illustrated in the ability of our top international players to change direction with precision and at pace, a key quality that distinguishes top class players from average players.
Manipulation refers to the player's co-ordination skills. These include the cooperation of hand and foot movements at pace. These are best illustrated in the ability of a player to pick a ball while on the move and at the same time changing direction with precision and speed.
Awareness refers to the player's ability to judge space and time and to put together the best possible choices to exploit these.
All these elements of motor fitness can be developed. The capacity to develop these elements is most sensitive during early childhood and into the teenage years. In addition, the young player does not possess the physical maturity (bone, muscle, fuel stores) nor motor fitness base to benefit from specific fitness training. With a wide base of motor fitness and some general component development the young player will bring an impressive range of fitness abilities and skill to the senior ranks. In contrast, the adult player who has neglected the development of a wide base of motor fitness during his progress through the teenage years will firstly show promise but will over the long term be disadvantaged and he will lack the foundation necessary to perform subtle skills with precision, speed and power at top level competition.
Early 1990 studies showed that Irish schoolchildren were in general less fit than their European counterparts. They had more body fat, were less coordinated, had lower agility scores compared to age-matched European and Southern Hemisphere counterparts. Nearly a decade later these schoolchildren are now becoming the next senior rugby playing generation. During these valuable formative years the foundations of general fitness especially motor fitness were and are being neglected. Ireland also ranks at the top of the list when it comes to the problem of inactivity both in and outside of school. However and thankfully, some teenagers are more fortunate in that they are involved in one or more team sports. Their general motor fitness tends to be developed to a higher level. Support for this view is evident in the fact that many of the top performers in any given sport are also very competent in more than one sport or physical activity. By complementing participation in a wide variety of physical activities with general fitness component development a balanced fitness programme will be achieved.
As the young player grows and matures his need to develop general fitness components will increase. For example table 1 outlines a general progression of fitness component development. This shows that the key areas of development for a 11/12 year old player will include the development of motor fitness and core development. The 11/12 year old will develop strength and power by mastering the techniques of different exercises (such as partner resistance, circuit training and SAQ drills). He will be 'learning' greater muscle strength through being able to complete a movement with efficiency. The more exercises, drills and movements that he learns the better. His fitness and all-round ability will develop as a result. The 15/16 year old can continue gaining strength from learning a greater range of exercises and drills and also from a more formal strength training programme provided he has firstly mastered the techniques of a wide variety of exercises. back to top
The game of Rugby places demands on technical, tactical, physical and psychological factors. While this manual focuses mainly on the physical fitness development of the player throughout the teenage years, it does recognise the importance of attending to all of the above areas.
As previously stated the demands of the game will vary depending on the level of play and on the position occupied by the player. In general, Rugby can be described as:
'' a multi-sprint, multi-activity sport''.
It requires all players to have well-developed levels of all fitness components. While distance running training can play a part in a rugby player's training it is not the only fitness component needing attention. Rugby is not an endurance running sport. It is not one-dimensional. It is multi-dimensional. In physical fitness terms it is a sport that involves a vast array of movement and activity changes, it combines multiple sprints, grappling, wrestling and collisions, swerving and sidestepping, jumping, turning and falling in addition to the skilled activities of ball handling, kicking and passing, rucking and mauling --- none of which are really developed while completing long distance running.
This however, is not to say that aerobic conditioning should not play a role in the Rugby player's fitness training regime. Yes, it should be incorporated within the training programme but not given a primary position throughout the season. It should play a role in training during all phases - during Off-, Pre- and In-season. In particular it is important during the recovery period following an intense game or training session. During the recovery session the player can benefit from aerobic training at a low to medium intensity - completed for example in the swimming pool. During other occasions, when the player is recovering from a shoulder or hand injury, cycling or in some cases running may be appropriate for maintaining a base level of aerobic conditioning. Further, if general endurance fitness levels are considered poor then a combination of aerobic training methods such as cross training and interval training is recommended. There is good evidence, scientifically and anecdotally to support the use of these methods in improving general endurance while also improving anaerobic power. The important point from this discussion on the demands of the game is to re-establish a balance within the fitness preparation of the player.
Time-motion analysis of the game reveals that the game is indeed a multi-activity sport. Table 1 summarises the demands of the game for players under 19 years of age. Note that the duration of the game in this analysis is 70 minutes. It should also be noted that this table does not list all activities performed during a game. For example, falling, tackles made, tackles received, line out jumps, number of side-steps and number of changes in direction during one run are not accounted for in this analysis. Analysis of the game in this manner will greatly assist in the way players will be physically prepared to play in the 21st century.
Some points from the above analysis are worthy of mention. Total Distance and Frequency of Activity changes Even though the total distance completed during the game was between 4000 and 5750 metres, the total number of activity changes is, for all positions, greater than 540 per game. From the above analysis the demands of the game clearly call for a predominance of multiple training activities that last no longer than 8-10 seconds in duration. This highlights the principle of 'specificity' of training. In other words Rugby training should mimic and develop the activities found in the game. While general fitness development should precede specific fitness development it has been observed that general fitness development tends to be the main focus of fitness training throughout the year in Irish Rugby while specific rugby fitness training receives less attention.
The average distance sprinted by players from all positions ranges from 14-24 metres. This confirms the essential requirement of acceleration training for all players. Note the greater frequency of maximum effort sprint accelerations by the backs as compared to the props and locks. This emphasises the importance of acceleration and speed training for the backs. However, it does not imply that forwards should limit the time devoted to acceleration and speed training. The analysis also shows that forwards are engaged in a far greater number of intense static and dynamic strength activities compared to backs.
As forwards are engaged in a large number of repetitive intense whole body static activities, including scrums, rucks and mauls a significant amount of training will have to be devoted to developing both general and specific strength. General strength training includes circuit and weight training. Specific training should include wrestling type activities including grappling and close contact pushing, pulling and resisting. Backs in contrast are not required to reproduce the same volume of intense static activities. However, they still require this type of training. The average time spent in intense static activity varies from 4.0 - 5.6 seconds. This justifies the inclusion of maximum efforts during strength training and short intense repetitive bouts during contact training. However, before the young player progresses to maximum effort strength training he should have several years (approximately 4 years) of progressive sub-maximal strength training completed.
Past and current training for rugby has emphasised continuous type endurance training. Clearly when time-motion studies are only viewed in terms of total distance completed an incomplete picture is painted of the demands of rugby. The information presented here portrays a more realistic analysis of the demands of Rugby and consequently points to the necessity for a more varied and balanced conditioning process. The coach also needs to have an understanding of the principles of training so as to marry the training content with the needs of the player and the demands of the game. back to top
The principles of training guide the coach in his planning of all fitness training. While these principles are well-established they are also constantly evolving as more scientifically supported information becomes available. The focus of all the principles of training and the efforts of all coaches and players is to effect adaptation.
The human body has an enormous capacity to adapt to the demands made on it. For example, in terms of fitness development it is well established that frequent training sessions that include long slow distance running will improve an individual's capability to run slowly for a long time. This is effectively an adaptation to the demands placed on the body. It becomes a better long distance running machine as a result of long distance running. However, adaptation is always at a cost. The cost being that all systems are trained to support this adaptation. Thus, the long distance athlete who develops a high endurance capacity will blunt speed, power and reaction abilities. The system, the human body, puts all its efforts into enhancing the system that is primarily stressed. Training for Rugby is a challenge because of the requirement to develop several fitness components. This can be done by using a periodised approach to training so that the key components required to play the game of Rugby are equally developed.
Improvements in performance will only occur when the body is stressed at a level beyond its present capacity. For example, this means that in order to get stronger you must be prepared to gradually lift more weight. Lifting the same weight week in and week out will not make you stronger. However, this does not mean that each day you should be adding more weight to the bar, far from it. Any increase in load should be applied progressively over a period of time. Overload in training the young player should be in the form of more and varied exercises and movements especially for the 11-15 year old. As the player matures overload can be effected using greater intensity of exercise (making the exercise more difficult) or by gradually increasing the number of repetitions of an exercise or activity.
In training or developing any fitness component, the coach should start at and work from the present or current level of ability in his players. There are two key elements to constantly consider before each training session - overload and gradual progression. In order to over load appropriately the coach must be aware of the individual stage of development and the needs of the young player. He must then gradually increase the work that the player is capable of completing.
This is a most undervalued principle of training. Combining work and recovery is crucial in order to achieve development. It is during the recovery period (away from training) that the player will adapt to the loads and demands of the training stimulus. For example, it is during sleep that the player's muscles and tissues will repair and adapt. If rest and sleep are compromised then the gains that can be made from training will be reduced. In addition, training sessions that are excessively intense and too frequent will inhibit speed and power development. Adequate recovery from exercise and the avoidance of too much and too intense training are thus vital elements in the development of not only Rugby fitness but also in the development of energy and enthusiasm for the game.
Rugby is a total body activity that places great demands on speed, strength, power and agility. The principle of specificity states that the effects of training are confined to those systems stressed during training. As a general guideline, training is most effective when carried out in a manner that simulates the player's sport as closely as possible. However, it must also be recognised that many young players may not possess the general fitness required to develop specific game fitness. This is best illustrated by reference to the foundation of a house. It is only when the foundation has been laid that the house can be built. Likewise general fitness is similar to the foundation required to support a structure that will have to withstand the assaults of the environment. Thus it is important to start by developing the young player's general fitness and then to progress to specific fitness. This can occur through a properly designed periodised training porgramme where the player develops the general components during the early pre-season and then progresses to more game specific training as the pre-season progresses.
After a period of training the body adapts to the demands made on it. If training continues without variation then the body will cease to adapt and will in fact become stale. This is a common occurrence in sport training. When variation is non-existent then overtraining can take place. The player who becomes 'stale' loses his appetite for not only training but also the game. In practical terms, it is important therefore that throughout the year variation in fitness and squad training occurs. For example in strength training, the type of exercises, the number of reps and sets, the amount of rest between sets and the speed of movement will all be manipulated in order to apply overload and variation to continue the process of adaptation.
This principle of training implies that individuals react to training and adapt to it differently. In addition while all players may complete a similar training session those players who demonstrate high speed and power capabilities will require greater rest and recovery in their training compared to those players who are less endowed with natural speed qualities. Further, some players will improve their endurance fitness easier than others. Frequently, players who are naturally explosive will find it difficult to adapt to endurance type training. Their adaptation will not be as evident as the adaptation made by the more 'endurance' type player.
Adaptations can be lost if the player fails to maintain the training stimulus. In other words, the effects or adaptations associated with training are not permanent and when physical training ceases fitness drops steadily towards the pre-training level. The regression or detraining effect is usually less rapid than the initial increase in fitness. The good news is that a given level of fitness can often be retained with a reduced level of training than was required for its development. This has obvious implications for players during the off-season and especially for players who incur a serious injury during the season.
When strength and endurance training are carried out simultaneously it seems that the increases in strength are less than the increases that would have occurred if the strength training had been carried out on its own. This negative interaction between different forms of training is known as interference. It is of considerable importance to the Rugby coach because Rugby requires the development of several components of fitness. The principle of interference recommends that development and maintenance emphasis is given to the different fitness components. For example, during the pre-season strength, power and speed will be developed as they are the primary fitness components required to play the game. They should receive primary attention in the training programme. Endurance can be maintained while the explosive components are being developed. If endurance, however, is the component deserving of development then the explosive components should be maintained while endurance training is emphasised.
The coach needs to be aware of the principles of training. These are the principles that will guide the coach in planning the players' training and playing year. This section gave a brief outline of the key principles of training as they apply to Rugby, however, it is intended to outline these in greater detail in materials and workshops over the coming months. back to top
The young player's year of involvement in the game should be planned using a periodisation model. This is a method of dividing the year into periods which emphasise the development or maintenance of different components of fitness in a gradual and progressive manner. The Coach should be familiar with the concept of periodisation. Its purpose is to organise the various components of fitness into a progressive process of development. Therefore, the principles of training have to be considered at all stages in this process. Equally, the needs of the player will influence the process, as will the demands of the game. The importance of this planning process is illustrated in the fact that the only significant period of fitness development for many Rugby players is during the pre-season. Consider that over a 10 year period - the lifecycle of many Rugby players - there are only 60-80 weeks where fitness development can be emphasised. This is presuming that the player will spend between 6 and 8 weeks at pre-season preparation. Because of the relatively limited time period of development available for fitness development through the lifecycle of the average player, it is critical that careful planning is used throughout all periods of the year.
A model of a periodised year for a senior schools or u/18 youth player is presented in table 2.
Table 2. Periodised year for a senior schools and youths player (16-18 years old). X indicates that this component is either developed or maintained during the year. Note that a Rest and Recovery week is planned after every 5 weeks.
The model incorporates an Off-season, Pre-season and In-season. Other crucial elements to plan for include Rest and Recovery following a period of systematic training. Ideally, a period of recovery should occur after 5 weeks of training. This is referred to as an 'unloading' week, where a player will not complete formal training, other than squad practice, a team game and recovery training. Note that the major training difference between a school's senior player and a youths' section player is the number of contacts per week with organised training and Rugby practice. The youths' player tends to have fewer sessions per week. This has implications for the volume of training that he can complete. Therefore, his progress in terms of overload will be slower. This and other key differences need to be taken into account when planning the training content for both player groups.
The Off-season or extended rest and recovery period may vary in duration depending on the demands made on the young player during the previous year. While many players will participate in organised sport such as athletics during the summer term at school it is important that following this period that a complete break from formal training is taken. During this break period the young player will be encouraged to remain active. This period may extend from 4-8 weeks in duration.
The Pre-season or development period is the period during which the player will make significant fitness gains if the content is well planned and organised. The young player will commence formal fitness training during this period. The content of fitness training will be dependent on the level of maturation of the young player and on his previous fitness training experience. For example, a junior player (12-15 year old) may take part in a variety of team games and in swimming, SAQ, body weight circuit training. The commencement of the pre-season for the 12-15 year old may be 4 weeks before the start of the in-season. The older player (16-18) may take part in a more formal strength and speed training in addition to recovery, SAQ and core training. His pre-season may be longer in duration and a 6 week period is typical.
There is a crucial difference between the approach of the young player and that of the adult player during the pre-season. The pre-season is the only period when the adult player can develop his fitness. He will then concentrate on maintaining this development during the in-season. However, the young player can continue to develop fitness throughout the pre and in-season. His development will be as a consequence of two elements. His physical maturation will lead to development as will his progression in and experience of fitness methods and playing the Game.
The In-season or playing period is a prolonged period. It frequently covers at least 6 months. While there may be little opportunity for the senior adult player to develop significant general or specific fitness during the in-season the young player may develop his fitness throughout this period mainly as a consequence of maturation and exposure to exercise. To help ensure development it is important therefore to plan a period of recovery at regular intervals during the In-season. Following a period of 5 weeks of training and playing the coach should seek to have the player recover by completing a different form of exercise in place of any formal fitness training. Swimming is an ideal option as it unloads the stresses and strains form the active joints. Where a swimming pool is not available alternative exercise such as cycling is suitable. The important point is to have variety and fun built into the programme.
Examples of a typical week during each of the phases (Off, Pre and In) are outlined in Table 3 below. These serve to illustrate the variation and progression from one period to another throughout the year.
Table 3a. Example of a typical week of activity during a periodised training and playing year for a 12-15 year old.