What precautions should you take before you start your amateur rugby career? These will be different for everyone. But here are our top recommendations for what you should do before you set foot on a rugby field.
Start by improving your cardiovascular fitness. You're going to be running a lot on the rugby field and this is a critical first step to keeping up at training and in games. The better athlete you are, the better rugby player you'll be. The same goes for strength, get in the gym and get stronger. It doesn't matter what your starting point is. Just get better than you are right now. When you workout, allocate time on improving your shoulder stability. Doing so will help prevent and limit the severity of injuries when you do start playing. Buy the right protective gear, we suggest ankle braces and a custom mouth piece as absolute essentials. Finally, use appropriate recovery supplements to help keep you on the field.
IMPROVE YOUR CARDIO
You might think rugby is all about hit hit hit. But in reality, its more about run run run and run some more. When you first start playing rugby the first thing you'll need to contend with is running moderate-speed intervals for an entire 2 hour training session. If you can't do that, then catching, passing and talking to your teammates is going to be really tough.
We suggest the first thing you do in preparing to play rugby is to improve your cardio. There's no specific target in mind that everyone must reach. But wherever you're at right now, you want to get better than that. There are some resources on this website that can help you. Our flanker cardio program is one, or if you're looking for something low-impact, try our rowing programs. These two articles will help you develop a base level of fitness that will be invaluable come training time.
People will often start a new cardio program with a lengthy run, on pavement and wearing bad shoes. Don't do this. Instead, get on a rowing machine or a stationary bike. Something that puts less stress on your lower back and knees. It's no good doing one session and being messed up for the following day. Take it slow at first, train to the point of fatigue and then rest. You're better off doing a 20 min run every day than a 60 min run on Monday that kills you for the rest of the week.
Injuries are the #1 enemy of anyone trying to improve their cardio for rugby season. And overtraining is the fastest way to hurt yourself. One of the advantages of keeping your cardio sessions shorter, especially when you're just starting out, is that you'll be less prone to injury. None of nutritional supplements are going to prevent injuries, but our nitrate powder and BCAAs have been shown to provide athletes with endurance benefits for when you do decide to step up to longer cardio sessions.
DEVELOP FUNCTIONAL STRENGTH
Rugby requires athletes to perform a range of functional movements. Bending, twisting and getting up off the ground being the least of them. If you're planning to play in the forwards, its essential that you be able to help lift another human being over your head in a lineout, hold a stable position for a few seconds during a scrum and drive with your legs against resistance in tackles, rucks and mauls. If you're starting from the absolute ground up, here are the best 5 exercises for developing functional strength for rugby.
Sled pushes are perhaps the best functional exercise for rugby players. Especially forwards. The exercise puts you in perfect pushing position which is something you'll use during scrums, mauls and rucks. If you're a forward, this is basically 90% of what you're going to be doing during a game of rugby anyway, so get accustomed to it in training.
We've outlined in our rugby leg workout just how important it is to be both strong and powerful on the rugby field. Box jumps makeup a large portion of that program. Doing box jumps in combination with squats for example is a great way to develop strength and power in your lower legs. They're also a good test of where you're at with your weight in pre-season. The higher you can jump, the better your body composition probably is.
There's nothing fun about them but push ups are one of the best things you can do to develop your functional strength for rugby. We'll talk a little later about how crucial it is to work on shoulder stability, well push ups are a great way to do that. It's tempting to think you can just bench instead, but avoid this tendency. Doing pushups is highly preferable to doing bench. You hit all the same chest and shoulder muscles with a pushup, but you're also engaging your core, tightening your butt and legs and maintaining good posture through the movement. Stop benching and get on the ground if you want functional strength.
Now that you've mastered your box jumps and pushups, lets put them together into the single worst exercise imaginable. The Burpee, developed by Ronald H. Burpee in the 1930s (true story) this movement involves basically getting down on the ground and then getting up again as fast as possible. We all know how to do a burpee, right? But why is this so essential for rugby? Well, simply put, because during a game of rugby you're going to need to get up off the ground a lot. You'll get knocked down tackling, You'll get knocked down running the ball. You'll land at the bottom of collapsed scrums and mauls and you'll probably just fall randomly at least once through inattention. When you do, you'll need to get back up. You can practice this essential "skill" using the burpee.
We recommend the plank hold as the most critical core exercise for rugby players. Many many rugby players develop lower back problems during their careers. Having a strong core is the best way to guard against these. According to the American Council on Exercise - “Because the plank exercise requires minimal movement while contracting all layers of the abdominal fascia, it is an excellent way to strengthen the core, which, in turn, helps reduce low-back pain.”
INCREASE SHOULDER STABILITY
At some point in your rugby career, you're going to get a shoulder injury. It might be a full dislocation, or just an AC ligament strain. But eventually poor tackling technique at contact or being tackled with your arms wrapped up is going to give you a bad shoulder. There are however some things you can do to both lessen the chance of this happening and lessen the impact if/when it does. Here are three ways to increase shoulder stability.
Stand with your back against a wall and a 10lb dumbell in your hand. Hold you upper arm horizontal to the ground and let your forearm hang down vertically with your closed palm facing forwards away from the wall. Slowly rotate your shoulder so that you forearm comes up away from the wall, passes through horizontal and finishes against the wall above your upper arm. Pause and rotate back to the starting position keeping the weight under control. Repeat 3x10 repetitions before every gym training session you do. Note, if you can handle the weight, Barbell cubans with an empty 45lb bar are even better.
Same kind of thing, but more room for variation. Connect a fitness band to the bottom of a squat rack or any fixed floor anchor. Stand a few feet away with your upper arm horizontal and at 90 degrees to the anchor point. Use the same rotational motion and finish in the same position as you did at the top of your Cuban. Control the recovery, don't let the band jerk your arm down.
The key variation on this is to start with your upper arm by your side, and forearm out at 90 degrees pointing forwards towards the anchor point. This time, rotate laterally so your fist goes from pointing forwards to pointing to the side. Don't let your elbow move away from your side. Again, control the recovery and repeat. Focus on rotation without a pulling motion. If you can't do this, stand progressively closer to the anchor point until you can.
Final point on shoulder stability. If you already have a bad shoulder, get your trainer to put some strapping on it before training and games if at all possible. This isn't going to be effective in stopping AC ligament injuries, especially those caused by contact in tackles. But it might assist with awkward falls that can result in either full or partial dislocations when you try to control your landing.
BUY ANKLE BRACES
There's a lot of debate about whether its a good idea to wear ankle braces during rugby training and games. What's not up for debate though is that the rugby fields you'll be playing on when you start your rugby career are going to be hard, uneven and full of impurities that can snap your ankle in an instant. That's the reality of playing on public grounds or rented fields.
Knee injuries are usually the result of man on man contact. The Knees are especially vulnerable in contact situations as they're a target for tacklers and a fulcrum point for your body weight. So if you're going to snap an MCL or ACL, its usually going to happen in a tackle or ruck situation. By contrast, you can roll an ankle without anyone being near you if you land awkwardly or simply aren't paying attention. There's the same risk of this happening both at training OR during games.
So how do we protect against broken ankles and strained ligaments? From our perspective, buying and using ankle braces is the most effective way for amateur rugby players to prevent ankle injuries. But this opinion isn't without opposition. Some trainers and physio therapists have suggested that wearing an ankle brace will actually have a negative impact over time. The theory being that if you continually wear the brace, the muscles in your ankle lose the strength to support you.
Most athletic trainers still prefer the use of strapping tape, either put on by the player themselves or by the trainer before games. But strapping tape has seriously limitations. In reality, the support that it provides really only lasts 15-20 minutes. Which for most of us is just enough to get through your warm up and provide absolutely no benefit during the ensuing game.
Ankle braces by contrast can be tightened progressively leading up to kick off time. They don't need a trained physio to put them on correctly and they will protect you for hours, not just minutes. If you are going to play rugby, BUY ANKLE BRACES. It is quite literally the best money you can possibly spend. Here are the ones we use and recommend.
Why these ankle braces? You don't want the ones with the straps. Yeah, they look solid we agree. But if they're getting wet and then dry and then wet again, the ankle braces with straps are going to fall apart much much faster than the lace-ups. Spend the extra money for something that's going to last you at least the full season.
MOLD A CUSTOM MOUTH PIECE
We've known players who didn't wear mouth pieces because they "had dental insurance". But the mouth piece isn't just about your teeth, its also a piece of protection against concussions and TBI.
"Boil and bite" mouth pieces, so called for the way they're molded to the teeth, are generally considered to be a step above the one-size-fits-all stock mouth guards you can buy last-minute at Academy. But because the molding is done by people without technical expertise, the results can vary widely. The critical thing to keep in mind with mouth guards is that the fit will dictate whether or not the mouth piece is actually worn at all.
Rugby requires a lot of talking. Talking is hard to do in a standard mouth piece. The critical difference between a boil and bite mouth piece and one that is custom fitted by your dentist is the size. Custom mouth pieces are much thinner and easier to wear than boil and bite alternatives. If you have a dentist, get them to fit you for a custom mouth piece. This study suggests that because they're more comfortable, you'll be more likely to wear them too.
On the protection side, a 2014 study of high-school football players found that custom mouth pieces do a significantly better job of protecting players from concussions and TBI than boil and bite will. From Science Daily, The study found that high school football players wearing store-bought mouthguards were more than twice as likely to suffer mild traumatic brain injuries than those wearing properly fitted, custom mouthguards.
GET LOW-DEDUCTIBLE MEDICAL INSURANCE
You are going to get hurt playing rugby. The sooner you realize this and plan for it, the better off you will be. Rugby is the most physically demanding contact sport. If you're going to be a rugby player, its critical that you do everything you can to prevent injuries. But even after taking all the precautions on this page, you're STILL going to wind up with injuries.
Insurance coverage varies widely in different leagues, associations and levels of the game. Many leagues will provide coverage for players in association with the national governing body. But the critical thing to understand about this medical insurance is that its primarily for catastrophic or at least severe injuries. This means that the deductible is usually in the order of $2,000 to $3,000. Which is important if your injury requires reconstructive surgery and you can cover the up-front cost of hospital care.
Fortunately, most rugby players don't suffer injuries that are anywhere near this bad. At least not regularly. But due to the high deductible associated with the standard league or association-wide coverage, minor injuries go untreated and even undiagnosed. Assume from the outset that you are going to get hurt at least twice per season and plan accordingly for that. If each injury requires seeing a GP, a specialist and getting 2 tests (x-ray and MRI most likely) compare these costs against the price of medical insurance.
Don't worry about the catastrophic coverage too much. Your league or association will most likely have that covered for you (please check though!) But ensure that when you get hurt, your insurance provider will cover the costs of MRIs and X-Rays in particular so at the very least you can find out the extent of your injury. Compare the rate that your insurance provider will give you + your deductibles and co-pays and compare this to the out-of-pocket cost of paying for those services when you get injured. We think you'll make the same determination that we have and get low-deductible health insurance to cover your rugby injuries.