The 4 Pillars Of Pre-Season Rugby Fitness: Part 2 – Muscular Endurance

As any fan or player will know, games can be won or lost in the final minutes of any match and one of the main reasons for this is muscular endurance. Muscular endurance is defined as a player’s ability to exert themselves for a prolonged period of time. Previously believed to be a fitness requisite for the backs, it’s now believed in Strength and Conditioning Circles that even the larger forwards must have a degree of muscular endurance to ensure each ruck and maul is as effective in the 79th minute as it was in the 5th. Here we speak to the Sports Scientists at to see how you can improve muscular endurance both through training and sports supplementation.

Seb Stegmann

Firstly it must be noted that the muscular endurance required for rugby is very different to that needed for say a marathon. This is because a marathon runner would mainly rely on what’s known as ‘Aerobic Endurance’. This is where the body is working at a level where the demands for oxygen and fuel can be met by the body’s intake. The only waste products formed are carbon dioxide and water which are removed by sweating and breathing. Rugby players will rely on this energy system but more specifically they must train for ‘Anaerobic Endurance’. Anaerobic Endurance is where you must work without oxygen at a maximal effort, multiple times over. In a ruck for example you’re working so hard the demands for oxygen and fuel exceed the rate of supply and the muscles have to rely on the stored reserves of fuel. The muscles, being starved of oxygen, take the body into a state known as oxygen debt and lactic starts to accumulate in the muscles (that burning sensation you get in the muscles where you feel you can’t go on). This point is known as the lactic threshold or anaerobic threshold or onset of blood lactate accumulation (OBLA) and as you can imagine it either hugely affects your ability to perform or stops it all together.

One of the best ways to train for muscular endurance/ anaerobic endurance is to undergo high volume, high load training protocols with minimal rest. This is to replicate the maximal force you must exert over and over again in a rugby match. Now this can be achieved through different conditioning methods.

(1) German Volume Training: This is simply where you choose a large compound movement such as squat or deadlift and find a weight which you can perform 10 repetitions for 10 sets. Ideally you want to be resting between 60-120 seconds between every set and by the 10th set you should be almost failing due to fatigue.

(2) Deep Transformation Principle (DTP): This is where you select a weight which you can just complete 50 repetitions on. Then have 60 seconds rest, add some more weight and complete 40 repetitions. 60 seconds rest, more weight and complete 30 repetitions. 60 seconds rest, more weight and complete 20 repetitions and finally 60 seconds rest, more weight and complete 10 repetitions. After this take the weight off and start working your way back up, 20 repetitions, 30 repetitions, 40 and 50.

(3) Functional Specific: Applying the above principles, Strength and Conditioning Coaches will also use more specific, functional training methods like the use of weighted scrummage machines. This is because whilst squat, bench and deadlift variations are great in the gym, there really is no substitute for rugby specific movements.

Next studies show there are also key things you can incorporate into your nutrition to further help improve endurance. Here we look at the top 5 tips to improve muscular endurance in rugby players:

Tip # 1: Carb Up
A study conducted at Loughborough University in England found that runners who consumed a high carbohydrate diet 7 days before a 30km treadmill time trial were 10% quicker than those who didn’t ‘carb load.’ Put simply carbohydrates are an athlete’s primary source of fuel so having a sufficient supply before a match is absolutely essential to reducing fatigue and improving sports performance. An idea echoed by A. Bean et al, 2003 who in ‘The Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition’ states athletes need 5-7g of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight or 60 per cent of your daily calorie intake from carbohydrates. One of the best food sources to carb-load with is oats due to its low Glycemic Index (GI).

Tip # 2: Get A Cup Of Coffee
As strange as it sounds a cup of coffee could hold the key to improving muscular endurance time since researchers at Yale University found that caffeine (found in coffee) actually helped increase your resistance to fatigue by stimulating the production of the neuro transmitter beta-endorphin, which studies show can reduce pain and perceived fatigue. Therefore a cup of coffee pre- may help you resist fatigue during the latter stages of the match. Furthermore caffeine has also been shown to have muscle glycogen sparing properties too. Since during long periods of exercise your body uses glycogen for fuel and when glycogen runs out, exhaustion sets in. Caffeine helps prolong your glycogen stores by encouraging your body to burn stored fat as fuel, saving the glycogen for later. This all takes place early in the exercise, according to Dr. Mark Jenkins of SportsMed Web, you may use as much as 50 percent less glycogen during the first 15 minutes. But this leaves larger stores intact for the rest of the game, delaying the point of exhaustion.

Tip # 3: Reduce Cramps
With only a few weeks left to train you can’t do too much to prevent muscle cramping because of poor muscular endurance and lack of training. But you can ensure you maintain the correct electrolyte balance in the body to prevent any unwanted cramping mid-match according to a study conducted at Sanford USD Medical Center. Primary ions of electrolytes such as potassium (K+), sodium (Na+) and magnesium (Mg2+) are all needed to regulate your body’s fluids, help to maintain a healthy blood pH balance and ultimately reduce the likelihood of getting cramp. Plus according to the Human Performance Laboratory in New Delhi ‘an electrolyte drink can increase endurance performance as well as enhance lactate removal and thereby delaying the onset of fatigue.’ (G.L. Khanna and I. Manna, 2005.)

Tip # 4: Eat Your Greens
For those looking for something a bit different to boost performance, a recent study at the University of Thessaly in Trikala in Greece discovered that the green algae known as spirulina could improve an athlete’s resistance to fatigue by as much as 25%. The new research published in the journal ‘Medicine and Science in Sports Exercise’ theorised that the chlorophyll content in the Spirulina improved the oxygen carrying capabilities of the blood therefore allowing the participants to exercise longer, so try adding 5g of spirulina to your water bottle before match day.

Tip # 5: Reduce Lactic Acid
At Florida Atlanta University it was found that Beta Alanine and creatine improved the endurance and aerobic capacity of athletes after only 4 weeks of supplementation. Researchers believe its Beta Alanine’s ability to positively affect a substance called carnosine in the muscles which produced this improved performance since a similar study at the University of Tsukuba found that high levels of carnosine could help to reduce lactic acid build up in the muscle (the burning sensation you get in the muscles when you’re running hard..

proteinBy Sports Scientist Ross Edgley

Picture: Patrick Khachfe/Onside Images