Rugby Union requires players of all shapes and sizes to cover varying distances during the game. Sometimes walking, sometimes jogging but often players need to run fast or sprint. Players in the international game range in size from 78kg to 135kg and all need to be efficient at running to perform their role on the field.
In addition to the professional player needing to be efficient, quick, and fit, it is incredibly important that players are robust. That is, that they can tolerate the game, the training and perform day upon day, week upon week. We all know that injury is the nemesis of all athletic pursuits as it takes you away from practicing or completing the activities and sessions that will help performance.
The exercises that I often use in preparing rugby players to perform, and to decrease injury incidence, are simple, and focus on two key factors – Mobility and Strength. There are numerous exercises and if time and energy was not a factor then I would probably prescribe way more variations. However, I like keeping things simple and believe in the “Basics” being done well…… consistently!
MOBILITY - THE BIG THREE
Ankle Mobility is important to ensure correct mechanics and force production so we will constantly improve calf flexibility and ankle range of motion. The main exercise for this is “Kneeling dorsiflexion (See Pic below) and various other forms of calf/ankle positions (e.g. Slant board straight leg holds, Straight leg calf stretch off a step). Ideally, we would hold these for 45-60s each:
Hip Mobility is an area that most of us have an issue with. It can reduce stride length and create all sorts of other issues like low back pain. We all tend to spend a lot of time with the hip flexors in a shortened position so “opening” up the hips is crucial and should become a daily task (and in some people 2-3x a day). The two “bang for buck” exercises I prescribe here are the “World’s Greatest Stretch” and the “Couch Stretch”. Due to most people having tightness in these areas, it is important to spend as long a time in these positions as possible. The longer the better but progress slowly and perform correctly.
Hamstrings. Finally, the last key area is the hamstrings. Now rugby players, runners and cyclists will develop shortening of the hamstrings simply as a result of training so spending some time in positions that lengthens these during the training process is important. Straight leg and bent leg variations are important and should be done before and after most sessions for 45+ seconds each side.
Others: Foot n Mouth, Banded Hamstring, Pigeon Pose.
STRENGTH BIG THREE
Calf Strength is crucial. The calf-achilles tendon unit is where a lot of force is dissipated and therefore can help with running efficiency/economy but can also be an area where injury occurs most. Therefore, we must have strong calf muscles and like everything in an ideal world we would be balanced. Typically, most people focus on strength endurance of the calf muscles (e.g. maximum repetitions with your bodyweight) however when running we have a lot more force going through this region than that. Let’s get 'em strong people!!!! Hold weight, use bars, use machines, or use bands over you shoulders. Whatever you have available add resistance to increase the strength and stiffness of this important part of the “runners” body. 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps each side will certainly help you down the line……..
The exercise I think provides the best quadricep, hamstring and glut focus is the Bulgarian Split Squat. If this exercise is done correctly with a little bit of resistance the strength and stability gains that can be made through the hip are immense. Adding some instability to the front foot and ensuring most work occurs through the front foot will help you maximise the benefit. A strong core is a secondary benefit. Your form while performing this exercise should be one of an athlete striding out! 3-4 sets of 15 reps each side to start (bodyweight) and progress to resistance and instability with 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps.
The final exercise that I typically prescribe is a range of “pillar” strengthening exercises. Typically, when running or sprinting we have limbs moving in different directions (e.g. arms and legs) and to ensure we have efficiency/economy and robustness we need a stable platform for these limbs to operate from. There are numerous exercises we use to improve this on a daily basis. If I was to pick three to vary throughout your programme/week, then it would be Reverse Crunch, Plank with Alternate arm/leg lift, and Side plank with leg lift (lifting through glute not hip flexor!!!!).
Nic Gill (PhD), is the All Blacks Strength and Conditioning Coach; IMNZ Athlete; HOKA Ambassador.
Nic runs in the HOKA Arahi.