by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
I am fortunate to have many friends around the rugby world who are experts in their field. Once such friend is Phil Wagner, M.D.
Graduating with honors from the University of California, Davis in 1999 and becoming nationally certified as a strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS), Phil headed to Florida to train elite athletes at the International Performance Institute (now Athletes Performance). He's since worked for several years as a strength and conditioning coach at both the University of California, Berkeley, where we first met, and at UCLA, where as a strength and conditioning coach, he's helped prepare the men’s volleyball team to win national championships. Wagner also spent a year in Australia training the Super 14 team in Sydney, the Waratahs of New South Wales.
Driven to learn even more about the human body and it's inner workings, Phil enrolled in Medical School at the University of Southern California, receiving his degree in 2006. During his studies, he worked with two of the most renowned sport science laboratories in the world; the Biokinesiology Lab at USC and the Australian Institute of Sport. I posed several questions to Dr. Wagner on the topic of athlete preparation while having several Cal rugby players assessed at Sparta Performance Science, his state of the art training facility in Menlo Park, California.
Coach Billups - There are a couple of important areas for high school and college rugby athletes to focus on in their preparation to compete in rugby. Would you reiterate for our readers these areas and include a brief example of each?
Dr. Wagner -
Rugby is a much more enjoyable game when have the ability to play at a higher intensity for longer periods of time. The beauty of this pursuit for greater anaerobic endurance is that the process never ends. You can always improve this high intensity aspect (i.e. running faster), as well as your ability to repeat these efforts for more repetitions.
The best route to achieve such rugby specific fitness is interval training, alternating periods of sprinting with rest. These sprints should last up to 30 seconds to maintain high speeds, and the rest can be in the form of passive (complete rest) or active (light jog). Rest periods can be anywhere from two to six times the length of the work durations.
Nutrition is often overlooked, despite nutrition’s large role in fueling your workouts and recovering from challenging sessions. Before even discussing supplement options, athletes should make every effort to eat whole foods. Athletes should look to build every meal around a lean protein source, such as beef, fish, or poultry to name a few. The second most important component of your meals should be vegetables, high in fiber and the antioxidants necessary to recover after exercise.
While there are many helpful options among supplements, the only vital aspect is your post workout intake. After workouts, a liquid supplement provides a quick, easy choice to optimize the higher absorption periods directly after exercise. This supplement should contain twice as many carbohydrates as protein to stimulate an insulin surge and subsequent drive of nutrients into the muscles. There is no need to spend large amounts of money, as a recent study actually found chocolate milk to be superior to many of the major post-workout supplement brands.
Deep, continuous sleep provides a massive growth hormone surge, allowing the body to regenerate through several major processes including increased muscle mass and decreased body fat. After conducting several informal polls among college/high school teams, most athletes seem to average about 7 hours of sleep. The average teenager requires 9.5 hours, and the adult needs 8 hours of sleep. A recent study showed a 32% drop in alertness after a 1.5 hours loss of sleep, as well as reductions in memory and your ability to process information.
This sleep must be continuous and cannot be split up into multiple times or days. Keeping a regular sleep/wake schedule is helpful in this process to train your body to fall asleep and naturally arise at the same time every day.
Billups - Having athletes perform exercises in a full range of motion means they will have to use less weight to execute the movement properly. How critical is it to get right?
Dr. Wagner - It is imperative that all resistance training involves a full range of motion. Squatting to parallel and not locking out on upper body presses are just a couple of examples of myths in this industry.
A full range of motion increases your active flexibility, the key contributor in movements occurring in a rugby match. The other main area of flexibility is passive, generally increased through static stretching where positions are held for greater than 10 seconds. These stretches decrease your ability to absorb shock, slowing down your ground contacts and decreasing quickness. Therefore, flexibility should always be increased through active movement, especially during your workouts where the ability to focus on a full range of motion is available.
Billups – As a medical doctor and sport scientist, what advice would you give to aspiring rugby players who are looking in their local area for accurate and applicable strength information specific to rugby?
Dr. Wagner - While the internet provides a wealth of training information, there is no substitute for a good coach that can correct exercise mechanics to both enhance performance and reduce injuries. Our training center, Sparta Performance Science, is located in the San Francisco Bay Area, and we train high school, college, and professional athletes.
There are other, less intensive options worth considering. Look for a certified strength and conditioning professional on local colleges campuses. These strength coaches are often open to helping outside athletes during their free time. Many gyms have personal trainers with backgrounds in various sports, and are educated in sports specific training. The important thing is that no matter where you train, you are getting the important mix of fitness, nutrition, and sleep as mentioned earlier.
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand (Bay of Plenty), the U.S. (The Old Blues), England (London Harlequins), and Wales (Pontypridd) for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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