In many ways, rugby is a complex sport to train for. Involving virtually every component of physical fitness, plus high levels of skill, rugby players have to be real fitness all-rounders.

That means ruggers can’t just go for a jog or hit the gym and expect to be match fit. Instead, they need to follow well-designed training programs that make sure they are in tip-top shape when the competitive season arrives. This usually means training changes during the off-season, pre-season, and the mid-season.

One of the most important but misunderstood aspects of rugby training is cardio. After all, rugby is primarily an anaerobic, start-stop activity and so, it would at least appear, that traditional approaches to cardio are not very useful for ruggers. You don’t see many ruggers in aerobics classes, after all!

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However, as most athletes know or will have been told, cardiovascular fitness underpins almost every other fitness component. As the saying goes, running is good for all sports. So, how much cardio do rugby players really need? The answer to that conundrum is – it depends!

Rugby needs analysis

When it comes to prescribing cardio, opinions vary from 20 minutes three-times a week, to five sessions of 30 minutes per week. Many runners will tell you that you need to clock up at least 20-30 miles per week to improve your fitness, so who’s right?

The thing is, fitness is relative, and ruggers are not usually top-class runners too. The demands of rugby are unique, and so ruggers need to adjust their cardio according to the demands of their sport.

When determining how much cardio ruggers need, it’s important to ask some questions:

  • What are the cardiovascular demands of rugby?
  • How fit are you currently?
  • Do you need to lose weight?

Q1. The cardiovascular demands of rugby

Rugby involves all three of the so-called energy systems – the ATP-CP system, the lactate system, and the oxygen system. We often talk and learn about these systems individually, but, the truth is that they overlap. However, it’s easier to understand what is actually a very complex subject when each one is isolated and discussed separately.

The ATP-CP system is your start up system, and uses Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) and Creatine Phosphate (CP) stored in your muscles for instant energy. It lasts around 10 seconds, and is most active during bouts of maximum intensity activity.

The lactate system is also anaerobic, but creates ATP from partially oxidized glucose. This creates a by-product called lactic acid, which after 30-90 seconds, puts the brakes on energy production, and forces you to slow down or stop. The lactate system dominates during high intensity activity.

The oxygen system creates ATP from carbs and fats in an oxygen-rich environment. It is dependent on taking in, transporting, and utilizing oxygen, and more oxygen you can use, the fitter you are said to be. Aerobic fitness is usually expressed as your VO2 Maximum, or VO2 for short.

While rugby IS predominately an anaerobic sport, your body must go back to the oxygen system between bouts of explosive activity. The more aerobically fit you are, the faster you will recover between periods of anaerobic activity, and the slower you will be to go anaerobic. For example, if you have a high level of aerobic fitness, you will able to keep your muscles supplied with oxygen for longer even during anaerobic activity.

Because of the mixed demands of rugby, a rugby-specific cardio program should include workouts that challenge all three energy systems. Want to skip ahead? You’ll find example workouts below.

Q2. How fit are you currently?

So, if every rugger needs to do at least some cardio, how much do you need? That depends on your current level of fitness, and that means fitness testing. There are lots of ways to test cardiovascular fitness, but one of the best and most accessible is the standard multistage fitness test, also known as the bleep test

The less fit you are, the more cardio you should do. If you are unable to reach at least stage ten on the bleep test, you should make cardio your priority until you can. After all, it’s no good having the strength of an Olympian if you can’t keep up with the flow of play. The best time to increase your fitness is during the off-season. Mid-season is a bit too late if you want to keep your place in the team.

Q3. Do you need to lose weight?

Cardio burns calories, and can help with weight loss. Diet is the most important consideration for weight loss, but cardio undeniably helps. If you are carrying too much weight, regular cardio workouts will help you to shed that unwanted fat.

However, if you find you have to do a lot of cardio all year round to keep your weight under control, your diet sucks! Doing never-ending cardio workouts for weight control means you are addressing the symptom while ignoring the cause of the problem – what you eat and drink. As the saying goes, you can’t outrun a bad diet.

So, how much cardio do you need to do?

Like Goldilocks and her porridge, ruggers need to do the amount of cardio that is “just right” for them. This can vary from a couple of sessions per week, right up to five or more.

Your workouts should reflect your weaknesses, and your training should emphasize whichever of the three energy systems you feel you need to improve the most. For example, you might to one aerobic session, two lactate sessions, and one ATP-CP session per week. As your energy system fitness improves, you should adjust your training program to reflect your new goal and aims.

Cardio Loading

The main thing to avoid is doing cardio for the sake of it. Lots of “junk miles” won’t make you fitter, but will use energy that could have been better used elsewhere, or even increase your risk of injury. Do enough cardio for the results you want to achieve, but no more.

To summarize:

  • Unfit?  -----> Do more cardio, more often
  • Overweight? -----> Cardio can help, but you should not need to do it indefinitely.
  • Fit and healthy? -----> Do enough cardio to maintain your current fitness levels
  • Off-season? -----> More cardio is appropriate, with the emphasis on aerobic training.
  • Pre-season/mid-season? -----> Less cardio is more appropriate, emphasizing anaerobic training.

And while rugby is a sport that involves a lot of running, that doesn’t mean you have to run for all your cardio workouts. In fact, it could be argued that rowing is actually the best workout for ruggers. Read why here.

Here are four workouts for developing all-round rugby fitness…

1. Long, slow distance training

Long, slow distance training, also known as LSD, builds your basic fitness and your aerobic base. Despite rugby being an anaerobic, start-stop sport, you’ll experience less fatigue, and recover more quickly between bouts of high-intensity activity if you have a decent level of aerobic fitness.

For this workout, simply head out for a run, cycle, swim, or row and, maintaining an easy pace, keep going for 20-30 minutes. Your heart rate should be around 60% of your age-adjusted maximum, which equates to about level 5/6 on an RPE scale of 1-10. You should feel comfortable, and able to maintain a conversation, but be slightly out of breath.

Build up to around 40 minutes, but resist the temptation to do more than this. Exercising for longer will not improve your fitness that much more.

2. 30-30 intervals

Rugby is a sport where, despite a typical game lasting 80 minutes, you are only really active for bursts of 20-30 seconds at a time, usually alternated with similar-length rests. Replicate this by doing 30-30 intervals.

After a warm up, run, row, or cycle hard for 30 seconds, and then slow down and recover for 30 seconds, e.g. sprint and walk. Repeat 20 times to total 20 minutes. As you become more accustomed to this workout, add more intervals. Work your way up to as many as 40 intervals to simulate a full half of rugby. This workout emphasizes the lactate energy system.

3. Reverse Tabatas

This workout emphasizes the ATP-CP energy system. By taking the traditional Tabata training system and turning it on its head, you work your type 2b fast twitch anaerobic muscle fibers, and will boost your ability to sprint to the max, recover quickly, and then do it all over again.

Using a rower, exercise bike, or sprinting outdoors, go as hard as you can for 10 seconds, and then rest for 20 seconds. Repeat 6-10 times. Don’t worry if you don’t get especially winded during this workout, that’s not what it’s about.

4. The Rectangle

We've spoken about this workout several times in blog posts, youtube videos and social media posts. While it's primarily designed for flankers; many referees, Props and junior players have contacted Ruck Science and told us they've really enjoyed incorporating 'The Rectangle' into their training regimes.

SUMMARY

While cardio is important for rugby, so too is strength and power training. You also need to make sure your diet supports your workouts, and that you put as much effort into recovery and you do training. Kick-start the recovery process with our specially designed supplement stack Ruck Recovery.

AUTHOR

Tim Howard

Tim is one of the founders at Ruck Science who settled in Austin, TX after playing rugby all over the world for the past two decades. He’s constantly used as a guinea pig for our most advanced or controversial diet and training experiments.