Rugby Training for Speed

Whether you’re a winger trying to round a full-back or a prop bursting through the line trying to make those extra yards, having a little extra speed comes in more than a little handy. 

Before we get into the nitty gritty of how to make you faster, we need to look at what being faster actually means. When we think of sports ‘speed’ we are usually referring to a couple of things; peak velocity and acceleration. 

Before we talk about training, it is important to note that these are related but different terms and we need to (at least if we are going to be scientifically accurate) define these clearly so that we can see the differences and how this may affect our approach to training.

Speed is Not Acceleration!!!

When we say ‘speed’ what we actually mean is velocity. This is how quick we are moving when we are at full tilt. Looking at the equation for velocity...

Velocity = distance / time 

We can see that velocity relates to how much ground we cover in a certain time. For example, if we look at the 100m world record currently held by Usain Bolt at 9.58s this equates to an average speed of ~10.44 metres per second, or ~37.6km per hour!!

This would be Bolt’s average velocity for the 100m. But we have to acknowledge that there would be a period of time where he was ACCELERATING out of the blocks from ‘zero’  towards his PEAK VELOCITY.

This means that Bolt's average speed for the 100m is significantly lower than his peak speed as he had to get up to speed. Looking at his peak speed this actually reported at around 43km per hour!!!

Interestingly, if we look at the 200m world record of 19.19 seconds this is a similar average speed of 10.42m/s, the 400m world record is 43.03 with an average speed of a relatively pedestrian 9.3m/s.

This shows another important factor in speed, our ability to sustain it for the required duration before fatigue kicks in. 

Now, I know in rugby it is unlikely that you would need to be running distances of over 80m unless breaking the line inside your own 22 and going the full length of the field, however the need to do repeated short bursts of acceleration/sprints with limited recovery is going to mean that training our energy systems that support recovery between sprints is also going to be very, very important so even if our opponents might be a similar pace or even faster over a few sprints, we can level the playing field by making sure we can last the full 80 minutes in top gear. 

So, when we think about speed in Rugby we have to think about 4 components.

  1. How quickly can we pick up speed (acceleration)?
  2. What is the fastest pace we can reach (peak velocity or speed)?
  3. How long do we need to hold peak speed for?
  4. How often do we need to sprint and how long do we need to recover? 

In the rest of this article we are going to focus on points 1 & 2 acceleration and maximum speed… how to build your endurance and recovery capacity check out our article here (Link to next article!)

Training for Speed and Acceleration.

Speed is determined by our stride length and stride turn over. This means at each foot contact on the floor we need to be able to drive ourselves forward with as much force as is possible, let our other leg swing through quickly enough into a position to initiate the next foot contact safely, then as the foot heads towards the floor activating muscles at the right time to drive through the floor and begging the next cycle. The more rapidly we can produce force, the more efficiently we can transfer energy through the floor and the more proficient we are at using that force in the right direction, the faster we are.

To generate and maintain a high rate of force production. Training for speed is often focused around the ‘stretch shortening cycle’. 

The stretch shortening cycle is a phenomenon where once a muscle has been stretched/pre-loaded then during the shortening phase the muscle can produce more energy and do this in a more rapid fashion (rate of force development).

The type of training that improves this would include plyometric movements, such as repeated hops, jumps and of course performing the act of sprinting as well. 

Speed, well sprinting, is also a skill. There are technical and timing considerations to lower limb movement and landing mechanics that can be drilled that may improve sprinting biomechanics. 

Although our idea of classic strength training usually involves lower velocity muscle contractions than we would want to maximise sprint performance. Those who do not have sufficient strength have less of a ‘power reserve’ to access. Although past a certain point strength won’t make you faster, you can be certain that weak people are unlikely to be fast. Especially if we are talking about people with a lot of bulk (so improvement in power/strength to weight ratios can improve performance through weight loss, which we cover here). 

Strength training also increases tendon stiffness, tendon-muscle integrity and the potential to transfer energy more efficiently and safely as well as reducing risk of injury. 

Focused training around the glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors and adductors are important to prevent injury not just when straight line running, but throw in changes of direction and pace at high speeds and these become even more important.  

Speed correlates well with acceleration and this is unsurprising as both structural (muscle type, tendon stiffness etc.) and performance (strength, power etc.) measurements are related to both speed and acceleration. 

This means that training for acceleration contains many similar approaches to speed, but will also require some special considerations especially in terms of rapid changes of pace from a dead start, or accelerating into a tackle with the feet planted and no run up.

The focus here is also on generating forces rapidly from a start so we have to overcome gravity rapidly. Think of acceleration like a rocket trying to leave earth, not like a ball bouncing which is more akin to sprinting, where simply maintaining or amplifying existing forces to run fast is required.

This requires training of maximal explosive force with muscle contractions that limit the use of the stretch shortening cycle. Jumps from a static position reducing any pre-load, and strength-power movements such as Olympic lifts, or lifts that simulate components of the olympic lifts which is advisable for those who are not technically efficient enough to do things safely or have (or want) to dedicate the time to such movements. 

These can involve Olympic variations such as the clean, hang clean or power clean or even simpler movements such as trap bar jumps and squat jumps from a seated position. To build our rocket jets to leave earth (accelerate rapidly) training with some resistance in these movements is useful to train this ‘peak power’ loads of around 30-70% of 1 repetition maximum can be used.

What does a basic Strength & Acceleration Program look like?

The reason I use the word basic here is that if working at the highest levels of the sport, then rugby players are likely to be tested for where their strength, power and speed weaknesses are. What their other training looks like (e.g. skill and endurance) and therefore how much time and energy a player has to dedicate to improving a specific quality AND if a focus on this is appropriate at a given point in the player's year due to increased potential for fatigue and/or injury. 

Therefore, this is a single session designed for beginners or intermediate players, that is designed to help improve performance by stimulating a range of the adaptations discussed above, with a low demand for technical skill and low risk of injury that can also be implemented year round without causing too much fatigue. 

This makes maximising speed/acceleration potential limited as a result. But, if it was that easy, semi-professional and professional teams wouldn’t have a team of people dealing with this aspect of performance… Some even hire specific speed coaches for the job if needed (and of course they have the budget).






Trap Bar Deadlift




Heavy load so the last 1-2 reps on each set is a challenge.

Barbell or Safety Bar Box Squat




Heavy load so the last 1-2 reps on each set is a challenge. Set the box at just above knee height, slight pause at the bottom of each repetition.

Box Jump




Set at a height you can achieve landing comfortably.

Double Leg Hops/Bounds




Chain these together with a focus on carrying over momentum from one hop to the next.

Trap Bar Jump




Use around 30-50% of body weight on the bar. Maintain maximum effort with each rep. Reset to the ground each repetition.

20m Sprints




Maximum effort sprint with full recovery between each effort.


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