Most ruggers run for fitness and conditioning. After all, running is an unavoidable part of rugby. Running is arguably one of the best conditioning tools for most sports because it’s accessible, activity-specific, requires no special equipment, and you can do it almost anywhere.
You don’t HAVE to run to train for rugby, but those that do far outnumber those that don’t!
But what if you want to take running as seriously as rugby and run a marathon?
Are rugby and long-distance running even compatible? Can you play rugby and train to run a marathon at the same time?
The short answer to all these questions is yes, you can.
But, before you lace up your running shoes and start pounding the pavement, running ruggers should consider the following.
If you put an elite runner next to an elite rugby player, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they are different species. The demands of each sport are so different that they attract very dissimilar physical types.
The most successful runners, especially over long distances, are ectomorphs. Ectomorphs are lightly boned, have narrow hips and shoulders, tend to be lean and don’t carry much muscle. They have a high proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibers, which are red and aerobic in nature, and are made for endurance and not strength.
In contrast, the best ruggers are usually mesomorphs. Mesomorphs are naturally muscular, have a heavier bone structure, and are typically broad-shouldered too. Muscle biopsies reveal that ruggers usually are fast-twitch fiber dominant. Fast-twitch muscle fibers are white, have a poorer blood supply, and can generate a lot of force but tire very quickly.
Because of this, if you are built for rugby, you may not be made for long-distance running. That doesn’t mean you can’t run a marathon, it’s just that your physical structure is not ideally suited to the task.
While running is usually a part of rugby training, it’s just one part of what ruggers do to prepare themselves for the demands of their sport. Ruggers also need to find time to hit the gym, attend team practices, work on their speed and agility, and do any rehab or prehab they need to do to stay healthy.
Most rugby training involves short, high-intensity bursts of activity, interspersed with brief rests. This makes sense as it mirrors the demands of competitive rugby.
In contrast, training for a marathon means running and lots of it. Distance runners typically clock up 30 or more miles per week, and even more when training for a marathon. Most of that running will be done at a constant steady pace – a speed you can maintain for long periods.
The main training variable in marathon training is distance, and your mileage will gradually increase as your training progresses. Distance runners may do some strength training, but it’s not really a priority.
If you want to train for marathon running and rugby, you’ll need to adapt your training accordingly. There will need to be some compromises. If you overemphasize rugby training, you won’t develop the long-duration endurance you need to run 26 miles.
But, if you go all-in with your marathon training, you’ll probably lose speed and muscle mass.
The trick is to combine both types of training so you can develop all the fitness components needed for these two very different activities.
The bottom line is this: if you choose to train for a marathon while also training for rugby, your performance in both activities will probably suffer. Because of the rule of specificity, you are fit for what you do. Your body will adapt to your workouts. If you cut down on your rugby training to make time for more running, that will affect your rugby fitness.
But, on the plus side, you’ll also develop some serious cardiovascular endurance, which should be beneficial on the rugby pitch. After a few months of marathon training, you should find playing 80 minutes of rugby, much less tiring.
Running and rugby can both be a source of injuries. Rugby injuries tend to be impact-related, or sprains and strains caused by over-exertion, and most ruggers play entire seasons while carrying minor injuries.
This could prove frustrating if you want to try and train for a marathon at the same time as playing rugby. After all, running while suffering the effects of a recent dead leg or similar soft tissue injury is no one’s idea of fun.
Running injuries are more usually caused by overuse. Miles of pavement pounding can take its toll on your muscles and joints. This is true for ectomorphic distance runners and is even more likely if you are a hulking mesomorphic rugby player.
Because of this, it may be hard to balance training for a marathon with the effects of intense rugby. If you play a tough game on Saturday, Sunday’s long run could be a real challenge. (Sunday is the day that most runners do their longest run of the week.) In addition, a rugby injury could mean you are unable to run at all, derailing your marathon dreams before they even get off the ground.
Because of this, it may be a good idea to train for and plan to run your marathon during the off-season, so you won’t have balance competitive rugby with your running training.
Assuming this information hasn’t put you off trying to train for a marathon while still being a fully-fledged rugger, here are some tips to make your endeavors more successful.
While you might think you know how to run, there is a big difference between plodding a few laps of a rugby field and putting in two or more hours of marathon-pace running. To save energy and reduce your risk of injury, you need to run a certain way, and for a lot of ruggers that may not come naturally.
It’s beyond the scope of this article to teach you how to run efficiently. Instead, make sure you consider the following and also do some reading and research into how to run like a long-distance pro. POSE running is a good place to start.
Running is hard enough on your body, so don’t make it worse by wearing inadequate shoes. Get a foot assessment to determine what type of runner you are (heel striker, pronator, supinator, etc.) and buy the best shoes for your running style. You don’t need ultra-light marathon shoes. Instead, go for shoes that provide plenty of cushioning and support.
Running shoes only really last for 500 miles or so before they start to break down and lose their cushioning and support. Because of this, make sure you change your shoes regularly. Running in worn-out shoes could lead to injury.
Marathon runners often run five, six, or even seven times a week. That’s what you need to do to be a successful distance runner. Some clock up over 100 miles every seven days. Remember though, they are built for running, while you probably aren’t.
Limit yourself to three runs per week to avoid injury and leave adequate time for rugby training. Two medium runs and one long run per week should be enough to get you around a marathon course.
Forget about four-times-a-week gym workouts. You won’t have the time or energy if you are also running regularly. Instead, do two simple, full-body compound-based strength and power workouts per week.
Barbell biceps curls
Alternatively, try our 20-1-20 Total Preparation for Rugby Program.
You can train for a marathon without doing endless miles of running. To improve your fitness without the risk of impact and overuse-related injuries, supplement your running workouts with alternative forms of training, such as swimming, rowing, and cycling.
One way to do this is called “running equivalent miles.” For example, instead of running 15 miles, and hammering your body with impact for two hours straight, run eight miles and then hop on a rower and row for the remaining time. This provides your cardiovascular system with the same workout, but without the stress you’d accumulate on a longer run.
This is a very effective way to improve your fitness while keeping your risk of developing a running-related injury as low as possible.
A running equivalent mile takes the same time to complete as a regular running mile but may actually be longer or shorter depending on what you do. If you use cycling, you may need to pedal three miles for every mile you run to clock up the same duration. But, for swimming, you may only need to go a quarter of the distance.
While you won’t be doubling your training volume, you will be working out more than if you trained just for rugby. Because of this, you’ll need to pay extra attention to rest and recovery, especially as your mileage increases and marathon day approaches.
Make sure you get enough sleep, consume plenty of healthy food, always consume a post-training meal, stretch, and foam roll to ward off injury. Use natural anti-inflammatories like turmeric, fish oil, and melatonin to reduce the inflammatory effect of your training.
For more information on recovery, check out our free guide.
Rugby and marathon running aren’t entirely incompatible, but you will probably have to make compromises so that you can pursue both of these activities simultaneously. You may even need to ease off from rugby training for a while to accommodate your marathon aspirations. Similarly, if you choose to remain a hard-charging rugger, your running performance will undoubtedly suffer.
That said, completing a marathon is a major sporting achievement, and you can always come back to full-on rugby once you have achieved your goal.
So, to answer the question posed by the title of this article, yes, you can play rugby and train for a marathon at the same time. But should you? That’s a question only you can answer.