Rugby Training for Endurance

You can be as big, quick, strong and powerful as you could ever wish for, but unless you have a decent engine to get you around the pitch and maintain your ability to recover from high effort bouts of activity then your performance is always going to be limited. 

When it comes to building an engine for rugby, we have to think about two major components: 

  1. How big and powerful the engine is (our aerobic capacity).
  2. How far beyond the limit of our engine can we go before we need to let it cool down and recover before we can push the throttle again (our anaerobic capacity).

Endurance Training: The Science.

This threshold between our ability to use our engine to trundle along and when we overstep this line and head into the red zone is known as the anaerobic threshold (AT).

The AT is an important ‘turnpoint’ which is closely related to significant increases in lactate. Lactate is created in the muscles as a response to increases in exercise intensity but is fairly stable until we push our intensity to a point at which we cannot provide the body with enough oxygen to efficiently produce energy from carbohydrate (in the form of glucose or glycogen stored in the muscles and liver). 

At this point we need to produce some of our energy anaerobically and the product of this kind of anaerobic, incomplete glucose metabolism is lactate. 

Contrary to popular misconception, lactate actually isn’t really the problem. It is actually useful as it shuttles itself out of our cells for use as energy elsewhere and drags hydrogen with it. If we can’t shuttle the hydrogen out of the muscle, this causes the muscle cells to become acidic and this could cause the cells to cease effective function and stresses the cell which could lead to cell death.

Of course, this isn’t something we want, so our body detects these rising levels, tells us to slow down (or stop) and lets our muscles recover by reducing intensity. This then reduces energy demand and allows cells to return to normal acidity levels. 

This means in order to improve our endurance in rugby we can focus on both increasing this anaerobic threshold to delay the intensity at which we start to become anaerobic and also how long we can maintain anaerobic rates of energy production by increasing how well our body deals with the increases in lactate + hydrogen.

Long, slow, ‘steady’ forms of exercise are a great way to build the size of our engine and our endurance ‘base’ or capacity.

For beginners or those who are out of shape it is probably advisable to start with these relatively easy effort sessions on the bike, cross-trainer or gently running. This will build the size of our engine in a way that isn’t going to cause too much stress on the body, especially to those who aren’t physically or mentally conditioned to working at higher intensity. 

It also allows a reduced risk of injury compared to jumping straight in at the deep end with high intensity sprints which can create high joint forces and muscle loading. 

Different Types of Endurance Training:

This highlights an important point. The purpose of training is to cause a specific adaptation, and to cause this adaptation training needs to be safe and progressive. This means that if using sprint efforts, we should probably condition the body to sprinting by using appropriate strength training and including sprinting gradually in a non-fatigued state, then increasing effort, duration and number of intervals to make the sessions progressively harder to safely build endurance. 

The introduction of high intensity interval training (HIIT) style sessions can also effectively improve our aerobic base, but it really goes to work in increasing the anaerobic component of our endurance engine. 

The adaptations relating to our aerobic system take place in the cardiovascular system primarily and include increasing the efficiency of how lungs take up oxygen and transport it into the bloodstream. Increases in red blood cell size and number that act to transport oxygen around the body. Increased extraction of oxygen from the blood into the muscle cells and an increase in the number of enzymes that support the usage of oxygen to produce energy from both fatty acids and glucose/glycogen. 

One of the challenges of improving endurance in a sport that requires different components of fitness (strength, speed, skill, endurance etc.) is finding the time to train in this manner, especially for amateur and semi-professional players who may struggle for time and of course energy. 

Here we have a few options. 

  1. We can incorporate endurance into elements of strength or other gym based training (working strength endurance), using a circuit training style, and/or during rugby training.
  2. To use specific sessions that are more specific to ‘pure’ endurance that can be programmed and monitored more accurately at times when training and competition programs allow it. 

The advantage of option 1 is that it saves time, is likely to include rugby specific performance and also strength endurance which is important as the contact nature of rugby means that we are usually having to maintain high forces for sustained and repeated durations (e.g. forwards hitting ruck, after ruck). 

The disadvantage is that it is not maximising the specific adaptations (assuming we want to really build endurance in the purest form) and it is difficult to monitor training progression to ensure we are applying the right stress, at the right time, with the right monitoring to know that we are definitely creating the appropriate stimulus to improve performance. 

For the advantages and disadvantages of option 2, read pretty much the exact opposite. 

Designing our Endurance Program. 

So where does that leave us?

The answer with many things training is it depends on where your fitness levels are, what your priorities are in training and the phase of the season you are in. 

So here I am going to make a few assumptions before introducing you to a basic training program to build a big old endurance engine. 

Assumption 1: You are an amateur and training rugby once per week, with some focus on fitness but balancing these sessions with skill and tactical play, whilst playing one game per week. 

Assumption 2: You can make the time to train other sessions at least 2 other times per week. 

If you have read our article for training for speed, session 2 in this program could easily be incorporated at the end of this session, or if you are already doing strength work in the gym, at the end of this session. 

If you don’t meet the basic fitness assumptions above, and especially if you are doing no extra gym work, honestly, to begin with, just get outside and run twice a week, at an easy effort building up time and distance slowly. 

If you need to start with ‘run-walks’ then do so, and build up 5-10 minutes at a time until you can run at an easy pace for an hour whilst doing some full body strength training in the gym at least once per week. Then worry about adding in sprinting/hiit specific sessions at that point. 

With that being said, here are two sessions that will get the lungs burning and the body moving. 

The first session is a combination of aerobic base work and some full body circuits to build strength endurance, the second is a more ‘pure’ endurance HIIT running session that we can monitor and progress accordingly. 

For this reason, I would advise investing in a heart rate monitor to track performance, and either doing the sessions on a treadmill to accurately map pace/time or if you prefer running outside using a decent quality GPS tracking watch to get good data for your sessions.

Session 1: Circuit Session.

Exercise

Distance/Duration

Notes

Running

400m

Run at an easy effort to warm up/recover between rounds.

Body Weight Squats

60 seconds

Running

400m

Run at a hard effort

Overhead Dumbbell Press

60 seconds

Running

400m

Run at a hard effort

Battle Ropes

60 seconds

Running

400m

Run at a hard effort

KettleBell Swings

60 seconds

 

Repeat for 2-3 rounds. 

Session 2: Pyramid Interval Session

Interval Number

Interval Duration

Rest Duration

Notes

1

120s

60s

Intervals should be performed at a pace that can be maintained for the duration of the interval. If you have to stop before the interval is complete, reduce pace until you can complete all 5. 

2

150s

60s

3

180s

60s

4

150s

60s

5

120s

NA

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