Physical preparation relates to all aspects of physical training and performance. It reduces injury risk and improves our physical performance both in the gym and on the pitch. It’s what keeps us safe in contact, allows us to break through tackles and to outplay our opposition.
As part of our Player Welfare campaign, we’ve teamed up with Omar Heyward. Omar is a leading strength and conditioning coach who works with England Rugby’s women’s under-18 and under-20 squads, the Leeds Rhinos Women’s Super League team and as a lecturer and researcher at Leeds Beckett University. If there’s anyone that knows strength and conditioning as it relates to the female athlete, it’s Omar.
In this blog, Omar discusses the characteristics of rugby union match-play and how to train appropriately for the rigours of the game, to both keep you resilient against injury, and enhance performance.
What are the characteristics of women’s rugby match-play?
Before getting into the details of training programmes for women’s rugby players, it is important to understand the characteristics of the game. Rugby union is a physically demanding contact sport that requires lots of high-intensity efforts (like collisions, mauls and sprints), these high-intensity efforts are broken up by lower-intensity recovery periods such as walking and jogging. At both domestic and international levels, women’s rugby players cover a distance of 5-6km per game (1,2). The most demanding one minute period of game play at the elite level has been reported as ~160 meters per minute. This means during the hardest one minute period, players will need to run 160 metres. There are differences in match-play running characteristics between positions. Backs typically reach greater top speeds than forwards, and cover greater distance at higher speeds. Rugby players are required to maintain high running demands while simultaneously performing rugby specific skills (e.g. catch, pass, ruck, maul).
Great squad to work with and I’m looking forward to supporting their development along the women’s pathway over the next few camps 🙌🏾 https://t.co/pAxIlJ0qZw
— Omar Heyward (@Omar_Heyward) April 14, 2021
How do you physically prepare for the game?
In our recent paper, we investigated the training strategies of women’s rugby players by surveying strength and conditioning coaches who train women’s rugby athletes (3). This study included participants from seven countries, across all rugby codes (rugby union, rugby sevens and rugby league), from the recreational level all the way up to the senior elite level. As part of our analysis, we studied pre-season, in-season and off-season training strategies. We included questions on speed development, strength, plyometric and fitness training as well as recovery and unique aspects of training that women’s rugby players should consider.
We found that speed development was deemed important for rugby players, and was used predominantly to improve sprint performance and reduce injury risk. During the pre- and in-season phases, sprint training was usually trained 1-2 times per week. Whereas, strength training was performed 2-3 times per week in pre- and in-season phases and usually lasted between 45 and 60 minutes. Fitness training was usually prescribed 2 times per week during both the pre and in-season and were usually integrated within rugby sessions. Plyometric training was usually performed in the gym with strength training or on the pitch before speed development sessions.
Weekly training summary:
- Sprint development 1-2 times per week, when feeling fresh
- Strength training 2-3 times per week
- Fitness training 2 times per week
- Plyometric training 2-4 times a week, with speed or strength sessions
How should you recover from all these sessions?
We found that most practitioners thought recovery was important and used a wide variety of tools to aid the recovery process. When considering the use of recovery tools, the importance of sleep and appropriate nutrition can never be understated. Once these two big rocks of recovery are in place, then further tools can be considered. The main tools that were employed by S&C coaches in women’s rugby were foam rolling, stretching, massage and light recovery sessions (e.g. short, low-intensity mobility and general movement).
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Are there any physical preparation considerations for women and girls playing rugby?
Yes, there are. We found several key considerations for women and girls playing rugby. These are listed below.
Psycho-social aspects: There may be more value for social aspects to be integrated within training for women when compared to men. Furthermore, regular conversations about training progress can be of great value.
The menstrual cycle: It’s important to understand the basics of the menstrual cycle, to track your individual cycle, and to understand how it may (or may not) influence your energy, performance and mood.
Physical differences: Often women and girls have a lower training age than boys and men, therefore programming of exercises should reflect this. Training age is simply the number of years you’ve been training for a specific sport or number of years spent following structured physical preparation programmes.
External commitments: Women, particularly those playing at senior levels, may be holding down full-time jobs while also playing rugby internationally. These types of dual-responsibilities are key when considering training and recovery opportunities. Men playing at comparable standards typically do not need extra jobs as they can train and play as fulltime athletes.
Variability: Often within playing squads a large difference in physical abilities can be seen between players. This highlights the need for individualised programmes.
Education: Player and coach education on the physical preparation process is key. When all stakeholders are on the same page it allows a seamless development and progression of the physical preparation programme.
Limited access: Full-time access to facilities and expert staff is not always available. As a result of limited facility and staff access, the point above on becoming empowered through physical training education may be even more important.
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The information above can help women and girls understand the characteristics rugby match-play, and physical training strategies to improve physical preparation. Good luck and happy training!
(1) Sheppy, E., Hills, S.P., Russell, M., Chambers, R., Cunningham, D.J., Shearer, D., Heffernan, S., Waldron, M., McNarry, M. and Kilduff, L.P., 2020. Assessing the whole-match and worst-case scenario locomotor demands of international women’s rugby union match-play. Journal of science and medicine in sport, 23(6), pp.609-614.