By Michael Garrity, Head Coach of Rugby Strong
Training for a multi-faceted sport like rugby is a difficult endeavor.
Given the prospect of a sport which involves medium distance running, repeated sprinting, jumping, change of direction, contact situations programming for optimal performance within a rugby season can be troubling for any strength coach or athlete.
In the United States we are beginning to see the professionalization of rugby strength and conditioning. The days of following strength cycles and conditioning programs created for bodybuilding or powerlifting or even football are over. Rugby in America must take on its own identity within the gym and on the field to bring athletes the proper information and most effective pathways to become not only an elite level athlete, but an elite level rugby athlete. But as rugby becomes a high performance sport where athletes are dedicating more and more time to training while aiming for national level sides or possibly a professional contract, so too does the programming have to evolve.
As such we are leading the charge with our Rugby Strong program.
With this in mind, the goal for optimizing performance on the rugby field is to increase the various athletic capacities that a rugby athlete will utilize throughout a match and throughout a season. These capacities are defined as strength, speed, power and endurance.
The challenge then lies in implementing a program where all of these capacities can be improved in preparation for a competitive season while also not losing ground in one capacity or the others.
Most programs focus on a single capacity of performance and train that capacity independently from the others, or with a dramatic decrease in training volume of the other capacities. Example:
- Weeks 1-4: Strength/Hypertrophy Phase (High intensity and High volume)
- Week 5-8: Power Phase (High intensity and Low volume)
- Weeks 9-12: Endurance Phase (Low intensity and High volume)
- *Depending on the sport and the desired training goal these phases can be re-ordered, this is just a simple example.
This idea that strength, power, speed and endurance work independently from each other is completely ridiculous, much like the idea that various energy systems do not correlate with each other or rely on each other. Our ability to produce tension within our bodies to overcome external force (strength) influences our power output, power output influences speed, and, finally, the stronger that we are throughout a movement pattern the easier it will be to maintain that pattern as fatigue sets in, thus our endurance is influenced by our strength.
Why then would we train these capacities independently, separated by different training blocks all while risking losing valuable gains in another as time progresses?
Certain programs offer the athlete a pathway to train and, hopefully, increase the capacities equally throughout a training cycle. This is known as concurrent training. And with such a multi-faceted sport as rugby, where all these capacities are thrown together into one climactic event, concurrent training gives us a guiding light in strength and conditioning for modern rugby.
Concurrent Training For Rugby vs. Conjugate Programming
To go any further in this discussion we need to differentiate between two popular but often mistaken systems within strength and conditioning: concurrent and conjugate programming.
As defined by the English Institute of Sport, concurrent training is any program that trains several competing capacities such as endurance and strength during the same cycle of training. What this means is that these capacities do not create the same physiological response in the muscle (through various neural or metabolic demands) and one may hinder the other if training favors too heavily towards one side (known as the interference effect, more on this later). Also, this definition implies that these capacities are being trained in immediate succession to each other, usually with anywhere from 6 to 24 hours of recovery between training sessions depending on the focus and intensity of the session.
This differs from conjugate training in that conjugate systems train multiple complementary capacities (such as strength and power, where, for example, the two capacities are cultivating similar hypertrophic environments in the muscle) simultaneously, once again with the 6 to 24 hours of recovery between different sessions.
On the other side of the spectrum is linear periodization. Linear periodization separates the different capacities into their own training phase and with independent emphasis. Unlike linear periodization, where you constantly move away from the qualities you’ve just developed, concurrent and conjugate training aim to achieve goals within many capacities during the same training time.
In my own view as a rugby athlete and a strength coach, however, where the goal is to achieve optimal performance on the rugby field, the capacities of strength, power and endurance are all complimentary of each other within the realm of a rugby match/season. Sure the physiological response of each varies greatly from the next, but within the competitive setting (a rugby match) you must have a supreme balance between each to perform at a high level.
This idea goes back to the fact that each capacity, to a point, influences the other. I say to a point because it is widely understood that a bias to one capacity or the other will negatively impact the others, much like how a marathon runner (a bias towards endurance) would not be able to explode vertically like an olympic weightlifter (a bias towards strength and power) or the other way around. The idea then is to find a proper balance for training all capacities in the hope of making continuous gains in each, recovering correctly from week to week to avoid fatigue and injury, and ultimately performing optimally within our sport. Aside from the fact that by being rugby athletes we are using these capacities in conjunction with another and we must then train each capacity simultaneously, there is one other reason that is exclusive to rugby, especially in the modern era, as to why concurrent programming offers a great way to achieve optimal performance.
The Problem with Linear Periodization
Rugby seasons are very long when compared with traditional American sports (and throughout the year various competitions blend into one another through different commitments to club teams, representative sides, and possibly even national sides) and thus training time that can be dedicated to a distinct offseason or preseason is decreased. Therefore the possibility of an effective linear periodization model is slim.
Linear periodization requires healthy amounts of time to focus on one aspect of performance and usually has guaranteed off seasons and pre seasons throughout the year to dedicate to making huge gains in one capacity then move on to the next. As mentioned earlier though this has its drawbacks in that you constantly move away from what was gained and, going by the rule “use it or lose it”, the athlete begins to detrain those qualities when proper attention is not given. This is a risk I am not willing to take with myself nor my athletes.
In regards to the length of a rugby season, especially if a player is taking part in sevens as well, the athlete cannot afford to periodize their training into separate blocks and lose valuable training time.
Training time is finite and linear periodization treats it as though an off season and a preseason are guaranteed things within training. They are not, especially in rugby.
In the United States Rugby seasons normally last from September to May/June with the only time off coming in the summer but actually this is where the athlete must recover mind and body for a short while then the training must intensify again to prepare the athlete for the upcoming season. But, as mentioned earlier, if the athlete is also committing to sevens, which many are now focusing on due to the inclusion of the sport into the Olympics, an “off season” or “preseason” is fairly non existent.
Because of this, training must focus on the athlete making continual gains within all capacities (and trying to train each capacity so it does not negatively affect the another) as opposed to making gains in independent blocks and risking losing those gains as you advance through the program/season. The focus must also be on recovering properly from week to week with the goal of performing optimally during each match or competition. Because as we all know, the easiest way to not compete or perform is to get injured.
The Interference Effect
Rugby athletes require aerobic capacity coupled with the strength and power to generate the force required for high velocity running, accelerations and sprinting, and also for contact situations. It also requires substantial muscle hypertrophy to provide a buffer against the force of contact situations common on the rugby pitch. In this sense, concurrent training provides the best system to increase the many athletic capacities demanded of a rugby player throughout an entire training year.
However, according to a 2013 study on the acute neuromuscular and metabolic responses to concurrent endurance and resistance exercise in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, when concurrently training both the capacities of endurance and strength, an “interference effect” may occur when the development of one capacity hinders the development of the other capacity compared to training either capacity independently. This has been explained in fine detail by Glenn Stewart, a strength and conditioning coach for an Australian Rules Football team, in his article “Minimising the Interference Effect” which I will be referencing in this section. The interference effect may occur due to several reasons which include a disruption in energy balance, overreaching within training volume, and deficiency in motor-unit recruitment.
*The textbook where this article appears is available below. Also, check out an except from Stewart's article: http://www.humankinetics.com/news-and-excerpts/news-and-excerpts/high-performance-training-for-sports-called-a-seminal-work
In regards to a disruption of energy balance, in many studies it has been noted that high volume and high frequency endurance training creates a negative energy balance. Within a negative energy balance, protein synthesis is reduced and thus muscle hypertrophy is minimized (Stewart). Also in relation to this disruption is a possible alteration in hormonal balance. Strength training has been shown to alter the hormones testosterone and cortisol to an anabolic state while endurance training enhances catabolism, thus limiting adaptation to strength training and subsequent hypertrophy (Stewart).
Secondly, within a concurrent program, training volume is effectively doubled when compared to training strength or endurance in isolation. Thus, is it possible that training may cross a threshold of optimal volume and begin to negatively impact the athlete. This is known as overreaching and may lead to an interference effect between various capacities (Stewart).
Another way that the interference effect may occur within an athlete is through motor-unit recruitment. Research has shown that the neural pathways for developing explosive force in movements such as the vertical jump are weakened by endurance training (Stewart). If muscle fibers are selected in different manners through endurance and strength training, then concurrent training may affect the proper recruitment of motor-units.
All of this sounds like a big bummer, right?
But don’t worry, there are a multitude of ways to minimize the interference effect and thus experience increased adaptation and achieve optimal performance within concurrent training.
How To Beat The Interference Effect
The first strategy involves training competing capacities at the same end of the fitness continuum. For example, if you are implementing high intensity strength training, your endurance protocol should follow that pattern as well, trying to keep aerobic conditioning sessions intense, with low volume, and with shorter recovery between intervals.
The reasoning behind this is that some studies have found that there may be a relation of stimulus of similar muscle-fibres and similar focus of intensity. This is due to the neural or metabolic demands placed on the body by the training session. When both strength and endurance training are performed at high intensity and low volume (lower than 5RM for strength and above 90% of VO2max for endurance training), the stimulus in strength is focused on the neural system and not on the metabolic demands of the muscle, thus the demands of the muscle are not competing between the capacities (Stewart).
Those same studies have found that the interference effect is stronger when conditioning sessions are following a long distance, continuous running structure and strength training is following a higher rep scheme. In this sense, the metabolic demands on the muscle are competing.
Another strategy noted by Stewart is sequencing, or the order in which competing capacities are trained. He notes an argument for training endurance after, even immediately after, strength or power sessions, rather than training endurance before a strength or power session. According to Stewart, performing strength or power prior to endurance training reduces the potential of neural or metabolic fatigue from conditioning training interfering with demands of strength or power training. He finishes by stating that recovery between a high intensity conditioning session and a strength session, where, in the weekly plan, the conditioning will be performed prior to the strength, should be buffered by at least 24 hours of recovery to enable full recovery.
If you’re going to do high intensity conditioning followed by a high intensity, and thus neurologically demanding, strength session later in the week, make sure to take a full rest day prior to that strength session. In part two of this series we will cover proper recovery protocol helpful in implementing a solid concurrent training program.
Before working with an athlete or writing your own program you must always construct an objective needs analysis and create a performance plan that will prioritize areas that need improvement. To become the best athlete possible, priority must be given to the capacity in most need of improvement while maintaining your strengths. This goes against concurrent training, right? Not necessarily. You will continue to train all capacities equally and with the same focus and intent but the training volume will be higher in the appropriate capacity needing the most improvement while volume will be reduced in the other capacity, and thus the interference effect will be minimized (Stewart).
Throughout the training year, this manipulation of volume and intensity within the capacities will allow the athlete to make continuous gains, stay mentally engaged in their training and most importantly, decrease the possibility of the interference effect. This is known as undulating, or wave periodization. According to Stewart, “Using the approach of a wave, or undulating, periodization model, it is possible to concurrently train strength and endurance but with alternating emphasis and focus on blocks of volume and intensity. This manipulation of differing emphasis over a complete training period reduces a number of factors contributing to interference effect.”
No program is perfect. In whatever one you may choose, your bias may fall to a capacity that you enjoy training, or you may be reluctant to train as hard in your conditioning sessions as with your strength sessions. Imbalance is possible in any number of programs but our goal as rugby athletes must be to find the balance that provides us with a foundation to perform optimally for 80 minutes (or 14 minutes in the case of Rugby Sevens) and being able to play hard throughout the match and throughout the season. Through my own training and coaching, concurrent programming has given me and my athletes a way to achieve the conditioning and power needed to succeed on the rugby pitch throughout a whole year of rugby.
By now we should have a clear understanding of concurrent training and why it is ideal for rugby athletes preparing for the long grind of the season. Simply put, concurrent training offers a way to make continual gains and perform optimally week in and week out.
In Part 2 of this series I will examine how to implement a concurrent program successfully by utilizing various training stimuli. I will also go into more depth on how to buffer the interference effect through proper manipulation of training emphasis and through some useful recovery techniques to allow for continual growth in strength, power, and endurance.
If you’re interested in following a proven training plan based on this method, click here to check out our Rugby Strong training plan.