How to optimise your rugby pre-season
An effective rugby pre-season requires careful planning, an understanding of the desired outputs and how to utilise valuable tools, like Blood Flow Restriction, to optimise recovery.
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Every athlete knows the importance of a strong pre-season, as every coach knows the impact of a carefully designed programme. With physiological adaptations to achieve, Blood Flow Restriction is now being included to enable athletes to recover faster and enhance those strength and endurance gains further.
The holidays are done, the batteries are recharged and it’s now time to do it all over again. Pre-season training is loved by some, loathed by others. And with good reason. While traditionally pre-season may have involved endless running, elite sport now implements much more sophisticated training programmes. And with an increasing number of clubs and athletes, BFR is central to their plans.
A typical pre-season tends to last around 8-12 weeks, and usually follows an off-season period of 3-6 weeks (Bradley et.al, 2014). The goal of pre-season training is to prepare athletes for the competition that lies ahead. Players are likely to return from the off-season in various states: most of them somewhat de-trained. Sessions, therefore, need to use progressive overload to focus on physiological adaptations, allowing athletes to return to – and even surpass – their previous levels of speed, strength, power, agility and endurance. Upping their output, reducing their injury risk and increasing general player availability for the management team are key.
BFR can have an important role to play. With its unique ability to build muscle, increase endurance and speed up recovery, without loading the joints, it can enable players to adapt quicker and more effectively, enhancing their readiness to play. By strapping in, players create the conditions that upregulate muscle protein synthesis (MPS), increase the body’s ability to hypertrophy, and enhance energy production. It can be done passively or actively – with the added benefit that BFR results in no, or very low, central nervous system fatigue.
However, in pre-season, fatigue does not have to be a bad thing.
To allow physiological adaptation to occur during the pre-season period, a stimulus that causes damage in the body needs to take place. This could be from a strength, endurance or power session, for example. When the body then repairs itself following the session, it adapts so that in the future – the competitive season – it can take on greater load.
The greatest adaptations take place when the body is left to repair itself. The problem with this, though, is when such adaptation results in muscle soreness. This can impact pre-season sessions, causing athletes to skip training or limit their output. To combat this, athletes may seek to use traditional recovery methods such as ice baths and cryotherapy. These traditional modalities, however, come with their own problems in pre-season. Their application causes a ‘blunting effect’. Although they help the body to recover quicker, in doing so their ‘help’ minimises the physiological adaptations that take place.
That leaves the athlete in a tough spot. Do they sacrifice adaptations for freshness, or do they battle on through the pain? Fortunately, BFR is perfectly placed to provide a solution. This is because its application has no blunting effect. Though BFR aids recovery, it actually augments rather than blunts adaptations. This is because of the effect that occlusion training has on the body. Strapping into BFR upregulates muscle protein synthesis pathways and encourages hypertrophy: both desirable adaptations for the pre-season period.
It isn’t just recovery that BFR can supercharge. Because BFR elicits no – or very low – central nervous system fatigue it can seamlessly slot into a pre-season schedule, developing players’ strength, power or endurance. While dedicated BFR sessions are an option for players or clubs, BFR is often best used as a finisher to a session. Take strength, for example just four sets of a load that is 20-30% of the athlete’s one rep max is sufficient to produce serious results. When it comes to endurance, two-four sets of five minutes at low-medium intensity is enough. This means that BFR doesn’t impact a pre-season schedule and actually gives enhanced results through superior adaptation.
The beauty of BFR, therefore, is its adaptability. Need to help players reduce muscle soreness before the next session? Strap in. Work with load-compromised players or those with joint niggles who cannot lift heavy? Strap in. Up their cardiovascular fitness? Strap in. Return those who are injured back to action quicker? Strap in.
Though most team sports need elite athletes who are strong, robust, powerful and fit, the exact focus of fitness depends on the requirements of the sport. In rugby, for example, the pre-season focus is weighted towards developing strength and power, while in football more emphasis is placed on aerobic conditioning. Within a squad this can be split further: rugby backs need to work on their strength and endurance capacity, while power is important for props.
Sport-specific, position-specific and individualised work are possible through BFR. Defenders may focus on strength, using BFR as a finisher to their gym sessions, while box-to-box midfielders prioritise their endurance. Perhaps one player needs to build their agility, while another has a pre-existing injury that needs to be managed. Whatever the aim, BFR can bring the benefits.
Train like the pros this pre-season with our Hytro BFR training plan:
At Hytro, we’re working with a range of professional clubs and athletes to boost their performance. As the benefits become increasingly widespread, such stakeholders are seeking to further integrate Hytro BFR into their training plans.
Though BFR training has been around for decades, its previously complex and costly nature had limited its use in elite sport. With Hytro, however, things have now changed. Our easily accessible, safe-to-use BFR wearables have revolutionised BFR use in elite sport. Due to this, BFR’s use has never before been robustly tested in pre-season.
Clubs from St. Helen’s to Gloucester, Aston Villa to Everton, are planning to make Hytro a core part of their pre-season plans, building on the BFR work they carried out last season.
Dr Warren Bradley, the founder of Hytro, joined Max Solomon of the Science for Sport Podcast to discuss the use of Blood Flow Restriction in elite sport. Dr Warren talks all about BFR, the science behind it and more.
After sustaining a back injury, professional rugby league player Charlie Willett was ruled out of the 2020/21 season. This year she has had to learn how to shift her mindset and practices to recover effectively with BFR and perform at her best.
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