How to build the stamina of a SuperRugby flanker
Fitness, endurance, stamina – it doesn’t matter what you call it, successful rugby demands the ability to play at a high level of intensity for the entire 80-minute game. While all rugby players on the pitch need to be able to do this, it’s arguably most important for flankers.
Flankers are part of the pack but also bridge the gap between the forwards and the backs. While props prop and hookers hook, in addition to their crucial role in the scrum, flankers are also expected to be able to run and support in all phases of play. Strong, agile, mobile, and fit – the flanker is a genuine rugby all-rounder.
Developing flanker fitness is no mean feat. While speed and strength are still critical training components, the amount of distance flankers cover, averaging close to 7,000 meters per match, and the number of repeated efforts, often in quick succession, means they also need a high level of both aerobic and anaerobic fitness. (Ref 1.)
Check out some of the world’s best flankers in action in this video:
Building an aerobic base
While rugby is primarily considered an aerobic sport, the human body’s 'go to' energy system is the aerobic system. Developing flanker fitness is all about taking in, transporting, and utilizing oxygen and is the state your body returns to between bouts of anaerobic activity.
The higher your level of aerobic fitness, expressed as your VO2 Max, the longer it will take for you to dip into your anaerobic energy pathways, and the faster you will recover from anaerobic activity. For these reasons, it is critical to develop a decent level of aerobic fitness.
Aerobic training is all about moderate-intensity, sustained physical activity performed for extended periods of time, and is often simply known as cardio. The importance of this type of training should not be underestimated but nor should it be abused. While some steady state cardio is crucial, too much is unnecessary and a waste of valuable energy and training time. Once or twice a week is all you need.
Because aerobic training is relatively low intensity, it can be used as active recovery between more intense workouts. Ideally, your heart rate should stay between 60-80% of your theoretical maximum, calculated as 220 minus your age. For example, if you are 25, your theoretical maximum heart rate is 195 and heart rate should be between 117 and 156 beats per minute. Regarding duration, 20-40 minutes is enough; you aren’t training to run marathons after all!
Some rugby fitness workouts include:
- 5,000 meters rowing or running
- Fartlek training (run/row/cycle at various speeds for 30 minutes or so)
- 1,000-1500meters swimming
Flanker fitness workouts
Aerobic fitness is your stamina base, but true flanker fitness is best developed by replicating the demands of rugby. This is the training principle of specificity in action. This unbending principle states that, if you want to develop a specific fitness characteristic, you need to train in a very specific way. In short, you are fit for what you do. If you want to get stronger, you must lift heavy weights, if you want to develop flexibility, you must stretch, and if you want to develop anaerobic stamina, you need to pick up the pace and put yourself into oxygen debt.
As rugby is a sport of repeated efforts and short rests, that is the format your training should follow too, and that means interval training should become your go-to workout method.
Flanker Stamina Workouts
Here are ELEVEN of our favorite stamina-building workouts that are ideal for flankers.
1) Belly starts 20s
This flanker stamina drill is very rugby-specific as each interval starts from the floor and replicates getting back into the game after being decked by a tackle. Remember, if you are on the floor, you are essentially out of the game, so it is critical you can get back on your feet and back into play as fast as possible.
Lie on your front with your hands under your shoulders. Do an explosive push-up, jump to your feet, and then sprint 20-meters. Drop back onto your belly, pop up, and repeat. Continue for 60-seconds, rest for two minutes, and repeat. Ten sets in total should suffice.
2) Rowing pyramid
Running is unavoidable in rugby, but it’s sometimes refreshing to do some other form of training. If nothing else, it provides a welcome mental break. The rower is arguably one of the best running alternatives for rugby players and almost all elite teams use rowing machines for conditioning work. This workout, like rugby, incorporates a variety of distances and recovery periods to challenge and develop your stamina right across the energy system spectrum. Do each of the following intervals as fast as you can.
1st set – 125 meters
2nd set – 250 meters
3rd set – 500 meters
4th set – 1000 meters
Rest periods between sets should be equal to the amount of time it took to complete the set. So, if it takes you 1:53 seconds to complete 500M in set 3, your rest period before set 4 would be 1:53 seconds. As the sprints increase in duration, so do the rest periods.
3) Rugby pitch suicides
This classic fitness drill is used in a variety of sports including hockey and basketball and for a good reason – it’s an effective way to develop a high level of stamina. It also delivers a semi-decent speed workout too.
Starting on the dead ball line at one end of the pitch, sprint out and jog back to each and every line on the rugby pitch until you reach the dead ball line at the opposite. Rest 2-3 minutes and repeat for four more sets.
These are also a central focus of our rugby sevens conditioning program, in case you want some variety in the suicides.
4) 5 x 3-minute intervals
Three minutes is a HORRIBLE duration for intervals. It’s just a little too long to be pure anaerobic training, but short enough you can go for it to really ramp up the intensity. Boxers train and fight in three-minute rounds which is one of the reasons they are amongst the fitness athletes on the planet. Three-minute intervals are ideal for developing flanker-level stamina as well as a hefty dose of mental toughness; they’ll help get you ripped too!
Choose a suitable activity that you can perform for three minutes at a fast pace such as:
- Jump rope
- Fast running or rowing
- Heavy bag work
- Hitting a tire with a sledgehammer
- Sled drags
- Prowler push
Do five sets with 60-seconds rest in between. If this is too tough, decrease the work interval by 30 seconds and increase the rest interval by 30 seconds.
5) 30/30 intervals
This workout increases anaerobic power and lactic acid tolerance. Equal work to rest intervals (30 seconds for each) means you never recover fully between efforts. However, the brief rest means that lactic acid levels will subside just enough to do another rep, and another, and another!
On a rugby pitch or running track, sprint as fast as possible for 30 seconds, and then walk for 30 seconds. Continue until you are no longer able to cover a similar distance per work period (within a couple of meters).
Tabata training hails from Japan and is a brief but devilishly intense form of fitness training. Shown in studies to be an effective way to increase aerobic and aerobic fitness at the same time, this training method is undeniably hard but provides a lot of bang for your workout buck as it only takes four minutes to complete.
Choose an exercise you can perform at maximal eye-balls-out intensity, such as sprints on the rower, burpees, kettlebell swings, or some other full-body exercise. Once you are warmed up, work as hard as you can for 20 seconds and then enjoy a leisurely 10-second rest. Repeat seven more times to total four minutes. If, at the need, you feel like you could have worked longer or harder, you were not working hard enough!
7) Inverted Tabatas
This Tabata variation emphasizes the creatine phosphate energy system. The CP system powers maximal intensity but very brief physical activity, lasting around 10 seconds. For this workout, after choosing an appropriate exercise, work as hard as you can for 10 seconds and then rest for 20 seconds. Repeat seven more times to total eight sets.
8) Broken hundreds
The furthest distance you are likely to run in rugby is one length of the pitch – 100 meters. However, unless you are playing rugby 7s, it’s unlikely you’ll have the luxury of running this in a straight line! In this workout, you run 100 meters but in stages with turnarounds, hence the name broken hundreds.
Place cones on the floor every five meters out to 20 meters, as per the diagram below.
From the start line (0), run out to the 5-meter cone and back. Immediately turn and run out to the 10-meter cone and back. Turn and run out to the 15-meter cone and back and, finally, out to the 20-meter cone and back. Congratulations – you have just run 100 meters! Make this more demanding by reaching down and touching the cones as you turn or try our beep test variations workout which is a slightly different take on broken hundreds.
Do one rep at the top of every minute so if you take 20 seconds to complete your run through, you have 40 seconds’ rest before starting over. Do ten sets.
9) 50-meter turnarounds
300-meters is another horrible interval training distance. It’s a bit too far to be considered a pure sprint but, on the other hand, it’s not so far that you can’t give it plenty of high-intensity effort. This drill takes 300 meters and breaks it down into six 50-meter chunks so that you must slow down and then re-accelerate several times per set to make it even more demanding.
Place two cones 50-meters apart. Going every four minutes, sprint back and forth six times to total 300-meters. Rest for the remaining time, Repeat five times.
10) The Rectangle
'The Rectangle' is a cardio program the Ruck Science training team designed specifically for young players to develop flanker fitness. It's a 40min flanker stamina program that can be tailored to your level of athletic ability. All it takes is a rugby field and a stop watch. Get to work!
11) 20-1 burpee challenge
While most rugby-specific stamina workouts should be built around running, there is no reason not to include other exercises in your workouts – especially in the offseason. This rugby stamina workout involves lots of burpees and is a race against the clock. Finishing the workout in under 30 minutes earns you a bronze medal, completing it in 25 minutes or less gets you the silver, and getting under 20 minutes earns you the gold and huge bragging rights!
Simply do 20 burpees, rest a few seconds, 19 burpees, rest a few seconds, 18 burpees, rest a few seconds, and so on until you get down to one. While you could do your burpee minus the push-up or jump, a real burpee goes like this:
- Stand with your feet together, hands by your sides
- Squat down and place your hands on the floor by your feet
- Jump your feet out and back into the push-up position
- Do one push-up
- Jump your feet back up to your hands
- Leap into the air
- Land (!)
Building rugby training is not easy – all that lactic acid will leave your muscles shaking and your chest and lungs heaving – but the payoff is that, in the closing minutes of the game, you’ll still be competing hard for the ball and leaving other players in your dust. If you are a flanker, make sure you include at least some of these workouts in your weekly training schedule.
(1) An evaluation of the physiological demands of elite rugby union using Global Positioning System tracking software