Why rugby training should start with cardio

There’s that word… cardio. Nails on a chalkboard to the average rugby player. Cardio is the reason to show up late for training and to avoid anyone who wants to be your gym buddy. Its also the #1 thing that holds back amateur players from excelling.

Almost all of us can lift, press and squat. But how many rugby players commit to doing 2 cardio sessions a week outside training? Not many, if any. Here’s why your team should take the time to incorporate a cardio program at the start of rugby training.

Cardio is critical to success

Rugby places unique demands on an athlete’s body.

As a prop forward for example, you’re required to have static core / leg strength in scrums, overhead power at lineouts and the lung capacity to carry that big frame around the field for 80 minutes. Any one of those things in isolation would be bad enough, but putting them all together is a tough ask. Forwards will generally spend more time on strength training than on cardio.

Considering the limitations of amateur athletes, there is method to this madness. But forgetting about cardio altogether is a huge mistake that can cost your team down the road as you strive for playoff and title contention. Its great to have a prop who can bench 300lbs hitting the ruck. Players with that kind of size and strength are game changers. But if they can’t move that bulk around the field for a good 60 minutes, what good are they really? Would you rather have a 200lb player at the ruck or a 300lb player 10 meters away? Not much of a decision is it?

The best in the world are the fittest in the world

The best rugby players in the world are not always the strongest or the fastest. Sure, those things definitely help. But rugby isn’t a 40m sprint. Researchers at the University of Chester have shown that the average rugby player will cover as many as 7km during a game. This distance is covered at a variety of speeds. The researchers explain that rugby players need to perform most of their work (about 80%) at low-intensity with short bursts of sprinting and powerful movements making up the remainder (20%).

Highlight reels often show the biggest collisions, the fastest wingers sprinting down the sideline and such. But it’s important to note that the best rugby players are the fittest. Take the All Blacks for example. While the outside backs have a higher top speed, forward Richie McCaw routinely wins the beep test variations at All Blacks training camp. He’s not the fastest over 40. 

He’s not the strongest guy in the weight room. But he can go all day, which makes him the elite #7 in the world. Checkout the video below and see how McCaw smashes out a 19.2 on the Beep Test. In-friggin-sane. Then head over to our cardio program for flankers and get to work!



The coach is responsible for the fitness of his players

A rugby coach is ultimately responsible for the team’s performance on the field. But the task of getting your team to play at their best on Saturday starts well before the first whistle. Most coaches don’t get anywhere near enough time with their players. And this is understandable, considering they’re amateur athletes who have other work and family commitments.

If you’re lucky, you’ll be getting 3 hours a week to train your guys on Tuesday and Thursday nights. With just 90 minutes to warm-up and train every aspect of rugby, allocating time correctly is a unique challenge for amateur rugby coaches. You’ve got guys arriving late, people leaving early, all manner of injuries that need management etc. But at the end of the day, these are all just excuses for a poor performance. The coach must take responsibility for how their players turn up on game day. It would be nice if you could have your eyes on them all week, wouldn’t it?

You can’t trust amateur players to get fit on their own

At any amateur rugby club, you’ll have a range of guys with varying levels of commitment. Some can be trusted not only to workout on their own, but to push each other and really train to win. But there’s another group, perhaps those who are slightly less committed who simply can’t be trusted to do their own running or weight lifting on off days. You’re only as good as your weakest link, so these players are letting the team down by not putting in the work away from the training pitch.

But guess what? That’s the coach’s responsibility too. No matter how you slice it, the buck stops with the coach and if a player isn’t fit enough to take the field, its their failure as much as the player’s.

20-1-20 PROGRAM


Waking up for rugby training

Rugby training starts out too slow for our liking. You’ve got stragglers turning up late and everyone playing touch and messing around with ‘out-the-back’ passes. Basically, nobody has woken up for training yet. Taking  a bit of pre-workout or nitrate powder helps with this, but it’s not the only solution. What you really want is for the players to switch on and get enthusiastic. You want them to be breathing hard to give them a rush of oxygen to their brains so they bust out of the work-day funk. A short, sharp and intense cardio session is just the way to do this.

Performing when you’re tired

We’ve talked about staying mentally alert during cardio training once before. But let’s go a bit deeper. How do most rugby training sessions go? You start with a dynamic warm-up, you move on to skills like passing and defensive structure, split up into backs and forwards for set piece and finish with situational team play. Sound familiar?

The problem with following this format is the order of these activities. Performing technical skills like passing or team-play requiring a lot of communication is great, but it should be done AFTER the players have had their heart rates elevated and are pushing towards their Vo2 Max. If you only have 90 minutes to work your players, you want to simulate game play as much as possible.

Rugby games require you to communicate and perform fine motor skills like catching and passing when you’re tired and struggling to catch your breath. It’s crucial to stress your players physically BEFORE they perform skill training. There will be many many more dropped balls, but they’ll be learning to recover from stress, communicate and pass accurately all at the same time. This is something they’ll need to do on Saturday so make it a function of rugby training too.

Guaranteeing a minimum fitness standard

We’ve talked a lot here about a coach’s responsibility for player fitness. While its tempting to skip cardio at rugby training in order to focus on individual and team skills we believe this is a mistake. Forcing your players to do 20-30 minutes of cardio at the start of each rugby training will ensure that the entire squad is starting at the same base cardio level.

You’ll get some guys who will massively exceed others, but forcing everyone to do the same cardio routine at the start of training gives you a uniform minimum standard across the squad. At the very least, this lets you know where your guys are at physically. If you leave them to do cardio on their own, they might shirk it or they might pound it, but you won’t find out until Saturday. Starting rugby training with a cardio session will give you a huge amount of knowledge about your players that’s tough to discover otherwise.


Training Team

Training Team

We are building the most comprehensive library of training materials for amateur and pro rugby players. With protocols for hitting training goals including power, agility and strength. Our team consists of elite-level trainers from rugby, S&C, powerlifting and performance nutrition backgrounds.