Conditioning to Develop the Physically Dominant Rugby Player

TAGS: rugby players, fitness levels, aerobic fitness, training athletes, speed-strength, Ashley Jones, conditioning

elitefts™ Sunday Edition

There are many ways to achieve an improvement in fitness. Depending on the position you play, the type and level of fitness that you require may differ. In the pages ahead, I'll outline a range of fitness programs based on results in specific aerobic tests, which are easily administered at the beginning of the training period.

Personally, I've always used the standard 2.4-km (1.5-mile) run for time as the best indicator of aerobic fitness at the start of a program. It is the easiest to administer. All you need is a track, preferably 400 meters in circumference, and a stopwatch. I like this test because anyone can do it and it's continuous. It tests the ability to keep going hard from the get go.

These are the standards that I used for determining how much extra aerobic fitness players needed:

2400 meters time trial, position standards (with position on field jersey numbers)

  • Loosies (6, 7, 8) – < 8:30–8:45
  • Insides (9, 10, 12) – < 8:45–9:00
  • Outsides (11, 13, 14, 15) – < 9:00–9:15
  • Hookers (9) – < 9:15–9:30
  • Tighties (1, 3, 4, 5) – < 9:30–9:45

To achieve these results, a pace chart is imperative so that the players know exactly where they are in relation to their goal times. 

2400 meter pacing chart








< 8:00







< 8:30







< 9:00







< 9:30







< 10:00







< 10:30







From this initial aerobic test, I then prescribe a variety of aerobic conditioning methods. The method I use most with the data is to set up a repeated speed/interval training session over a four-week period. I start each session with five minutes at the VO2 max pace as gauged from the run time (i.e. converting the time run into meters per second and then calculating how far a player should run in five minutes).

Each week I increase the intensity of the interval repeats as follows:

  • Week 1: 15 X 40 seconds work and 20 seconds walking, rest at 110% VO2 max
  • Week 2: 20 X 30 seconds work and 30 seconds walking, rest at 125% VO2 max
  • Week 3: 25 X 20 seconds work and 40 seconds walking, rest at 140% VO2 max
  • Week 4: 10 X 20/40, 10 X 30/30, 10 X 40/20 at the respective percentages of VO2 max

So, for example, if a player was to run a 9:00 for the 2.4-km time, or 2400 meters divided by 540 seconds equals 4.44 meters/second, his intervals would look like this:

  • Warm up each week for five minutes at 4.44 meters/second or 1333 meters
  • Week 1: 15 X 40/20 at 110% = 4.884 X 40 = 195.36 meters (total distance = 2925 meters)
  • Week 2: 20 X 30/30 at 125% = 5.55 X 30 = 166.5 meters (total distance = 3,330 meters)
  • Week 3: 25 X 20/40 at 140% = 6.216 X 20 = 124.32 meters (total distance = 3100 meters)
  • Week 4: 10 X 20/40, 10 X 30/30, 10 X 40/20 at the respective percentages of VO2 max (total distance = 4855 meters)

A colleague of mine, Simon Thomas, now the strength and conditioning coach of the Canterbury Academy/ITM Cup team, designed an Excel spreadsheet to assist in making these calculations easier.

Another popular aerobic test is the yo-yo recovery test. My philosophy is to use this closer to the start of playing, as it more closely replicates the stop-start and shuttle nature of the game itself. It is also a great test to use as a monthly monitor because it's easily set up and can be run as a warm up for a training session. It's also completed inside of fifteen minutes. Although a maximal effort is made, it isn't debilitating on the rest of the session planned.

My thoughts on minimum requirements by position for the yo-yo recovery test are as follows:

Yo-yo standards

  • Prop, 17+
  • Hooker, 17.5+
  • Lock, 17.5 +
  • Loosies, 19.4+
  • Insides, 18
  • Midfield, 18
  • Back 3, 18.4+

Hill repeat efforts

Another popular method of repeat running is hill repeats. I use a similar method to gauge distances but only using 80 percent of the distance achieved for an appropriate time on the flat. This can be a wee bit hit and miss, so you may like to use times. A protocol that I've used effectively is below.

  • Start each session with a five-minute run at the appropriate pace.
  • Week 1: 1 X 5 minutes, 5 X 3 minutes, 5 X 1 minute (1:0.5 walk back recovery)
  • Week 2: 5 X 1 minute, 10 X 30 seconds, 5 X 1 minute, 10 X 30 seconds (1:1 walk back recovery)
  • Week 3:10 X 60 seconds/45 seconds/30 seconds/15 seconds (1:1 work:rest ratio)
  • Week 4: 15 X 30 seconds/15 seconds/45 seconds (1:1 work:rest ratio)

VO2 blocks/grids

Another field based running session you may wish to try is VO2 blocks or grids. There are four levels that I've seen used. All grids are set up with cones in a rectangular format.

  • Level 1: 65 meters long, 25 meters wide
  • Level 2: 70 meters long, 30 meters wide
  • Level 3: 75 meters long, 35 meters wide
  • Level 4: 80 meters long, 40 meters wide

Players are on the stopwatch the entire time. The pace is fifteen seconds for each side of the rectangle, and each player will run for four minutes with a two-minute walk recovery. This can be changed as you see fit, but I can guarantee you that doing four or five blocks of this will be a most effective training session. As a change up in training, I will include a conditioning game for a block of time, say twelve minutes, and then have the players complete a VO2 grid on either side of the game. One of the best sessions I have run is to do two blocks and then twelve minutes of a game. Then we do two more blocks and finish on another game for a combined time of forty minutes plus rest time as well.

Other interval sessions

  • Session 1: 30 X 100 meters every 60 seconds
  • Session 2: 20 X 78 meters every 45 seconds, 10 X 50 meters every 30 seconds, 20 X 22 meters every 15 seconds (2-minute walk between sets)
  • Session 3: 5-minute continuous run and then 5 X 10 X 50 meters every 30 seconds with a 2.5-minute walk recovery between sets and then 5-minute continuous run
  • Session 4: 15 X 100/200 drill, 100 meters in 20 seconds with 40 seconds rest and then 200 meters in 40 seconds with 20 seconds rest, performed on a field, try line to try line being 100 meters
  • Session 5: 2470 meters in 31 minutes, 20 X 22 meters every 15 seconds with 2-minute walk recovery, 15 X 50 meters every 30 seconds with 2-minute walk recovery, 10 X 78 meters every 45 seconds with 2-minute walk recovery, 5 X 100 meters every 60 seconds,  finish
  • Session 6: 5-minute continuous run and then 10 X ½ gasser every 60 seconds (start lying face down on the sideline, get up and sprint to far side of the field, get down to ground face down, and then get up and sprint back to start), 3 X set of 6 Malcolm drill (1:1) (start lying face down on halfway line, get up, backpedal to 10-meter line, go down on chest, get up and run through to opposite 10-meter line, go down on chest, get up and backpedal to halfway line and go down—that is one rep); 6 X coat hangers, competitive (2 groups either side of halfway line on sideline, sprint down around goal posts and then the length of the field around the goal post, finish at the sideline halfway line junction)

Fartlek or continuous running

Start with around twenty minutes of continuous running. Try and do this in a park area or on a track. Try and stay off the road. If you want to, do the Fartlek run at a jog pace and every 1.5–3 minutes, introduce a much harder run of 30, 60, or 90 seconds. Build up gradually, adding say five minutes of running each week.

Swim training/hypoxic intervals

Hypoxic training is where you limit the number of breaths you take to complete a length of the pool by adjusting the number of strokes you take between breaths. I've found this type of training to be very effective as an alternative for running all the time and as a mid-week break from traditional training (off feet conditioning). But it's still intense enough to get a conditioning response. The sessions below are a four-week build up that I've used with super rugby level players.

Swim sessions

  • Option 1: 20 X 25 meters, walk back recovery, first 10 normal breathing, next 5 breathe every 6 strokes, last 5 breathe every 8 strokes (500 meters)
  • Option 2: 15 X 50 meters, first 25 breathing every 8 strokes, come back breathing every 2 or 4 strokes (1:1 work rest ratio; 750 meters)
  • Option 3: 10 X 75 meters, first 25 meters breathe every 10–12 strokes, next 25 meters every 6–8 strokes, last 25 meters every 4 strokes (1:3/4 work to rest ratio)
  • Option 4: 10 X 100 meters, first 25 meters breathe every 8–10 strokes, next 25 meters every 6–8 strokes, next 25 meters every 4–6 strokes and last 25 meters every 2–4 strokes (1:1/2 work to rest ratio)

Cross training sessions

These can be applied to whatever equipment you have available to you at the gym.

  • Option 1: 30 seconds, rest 30, 60 seconds, rest 30, 90 seconds, rest 30, repeat X 10
  • Option 2: Ladder 1 minute/2/3/4/5/5/4/3/2/1 with 30 seconds rest in between each effort

Bike sessions

  • Spin fast for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 minutes with 30 seconds slow turnover between each X 3
  • Spin fast 1 minute, out of seat climb 1 minute, and then 2/2, 3/3, 4/4, 5/5 and down the ladder 5 to 1
  • Spin 45 seconds, 15 seconds slow X 15 and then 30 fast spin, 30 slow X 15 and then 45 fast spin, 15 slow X 15

Do this continuously for 45 minutes with an "out of the seat" 15 seconds every minute.

Rowing sessions

  • Option 1: 5-minute warm up at 2:00 pace and then 45 seconds work, 15 seconds rest at <1:45 pace X 20, 5 minutes at 2:00 pace
  • Option 2: 5-minute warm up at 2:00 pace and then 5 X 15 seconds work, 45 seconds rest at  < 1:30 pace, 5 X 30 seconds work, 30 seconds rest at < 1:35 pace, 5 X 45 seconds work, 15 seconds rest at < 1:40 pace and finally 5 X 60 seconds work, 30 seconds rest at <1:45 pace, 5 minutes at 2:00 pace
  • Option 3: 5-minute warm up at 2:00 pace and then 5 X 30/15 at <1:35 pace, 5 X 60/30 at <1:45 pace, 5 X 30/15 at < 1:35 pace, 5 X 60/30 at < 1:45 pace, 5 minutes at 2:00 pace
  • Option 4: 5-minute warm up at 2:00 pace and then 5 X 15/15 at <1:25 pace, 5 X 30/15 at <1:30 pace, 5 X 45/15 at 1:40 pace, 5 X 60/30 at <1:45 pace, 5 minutes at 2:00 pace

Conditioning games

I've documented these types of games in a previous article. They are a variety of specific, small sided noncontact rugby games and variations to simulate game fatigue. The major benefit of these games is that you introduce the ball into the conditioning aspect and this increases the fun and enjoyment elements to training. Players don't know how far they're running and at what intensity because they're playing a game. We are also training skills concurrently to metabolic fitness and as well as the key aspects of eye/hand coordination and spatial awareness.

Major games and activities

While I was at the Crusaders rugby team, I included major games or physical activities each day in the off-season period. Some of these included:

Major games

  • Handball
  • Basketball
  • Netball
  • Gaelic football
  • Football

Physical activities

  • Boxing
  • Wrestling
  • Judo
  • Karate
  • Grappling
  • Canoe/Waka
  • Mountain biking

The rationale behind this was to expose the players to different metabolic stimuli in an enjoyable setting, given the idea that when you are enjoying yourself, you actually never realize how hard and for how long you're working. Also, there were a number of concomitant skills that were learned in the process as well, which can only be a positive as far as building on the skill base of the players. The other aspect for the use of these games was that they were then used as self-paced recovery games on the game day plus two sessions that were based around recovering from the game itself rather than as a conditioning element.

The only drawback is the potential for injury in some of these games, so you will have to decide the cost benefit ratio for including these in your physical preparation. In the eight years that I used these games and physical activities, I must say that we only had injuries to three players that kept them out of full training for a period of up to two weeks.

Gym-based circuits

I feel these are best used with your heavier players who can't tolerate the amount of running needed to ensure optimal fitness. In addition, because the demands of their positions involve so much wrestling and mauling, the gym circuits stimulate the development of muscular endurance. They can be combined with traditional strength and power sessions either prior to or after completing whatever strength and power workout you have scheduled for the day.


You now have the basic building blocks that one trainer will use in order to bring a rugby team to pack metabolic fitness in an off-season plan.

Following up from the results of the initial 2400-meter (1.5 mile) time trial, the team is divided into groups related to neural/metabolic and positional needs. All player groups take part in the afternoon activities as listed. If for any reason, a player can't take part in the planned morning sessions, an alternative program of cross training or water-based running or swim intervals will be programmed.

Weekly plan

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
All groups anaerobicConditioning games Aerobic/anaerobic repeated speed All groups speed/power combination Aerobic/anaerobic hill repeats Aerobic cross-country Fartlek runSpeed repeated speed
Boxing and wrestling Basketball Water polo + swim intervals Handball Kayaking or mountain biking

Aerobic group

  • 1 X repeated speed
  • 1 X cross- country/Fartlek run, 5 minutes run at VO2 max pace and then every 3 minutes run hard for 30, 60, or 90 seconds, pushing heart rate above 160 (40 minutes)
  • 1 X hill repeats
  • 1 X speed/power combination
  • 1 X anaerobic/conditioning games

Anaerobic group

  • 1 X speed/power combination
  • 1 X hill repeats session
  • 1 X repeated speed
  • 1 X anaerobic games

Speed group

  • 1 X speed/power combination
  • 1 X anaerobic/conditioning games
  • 1 X repeated speed

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