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How to optimise your rugby pre-season

Hytro Elite Performance consultant Dan Howells explains how 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.

Pre-season is an important preparation period that will influence a rugby team’s opportunity for success come the start of the season. This period is traditionally used for improving general and specific physical qualities and getting players back to a level of physical fitness observed prior to any end-of-season rest.


Physiological adaptation is key during this phase, with a focus on increasing outputs in various key fitness qualities. Rugby strength and conditioning coaches typically look to improve strength, power, fitness, and speed as part of the overall athletic physical profile of their players. Not only is maximising physical outputs important for performance in this period, but reducing the risk of injury and increasing player availability is also key within a period that also has to focus on technical and tactical development.


Therefore, depending on what the priorities are for a given player and the team as a whole,  it’s clear how important the pre-season is, and how it needs to be specifically organised to improve players’ performance in a range of areas to be ready to start the season with a bang!


Planning a pre-season

In order for rugby coaches and their support staff (S&C, physio etc.) to plan effectively, they must be clear on what it is they are working towards. A team may need to prioritise playing a game that’s continuous with lots of ball in play, to outwork the opposition. Therefore, in this case, a lot of the pre-season work will need to maximise each player’s ability to express those physical qualities by attaining high fitness levels in the pre-season period. Alternatively, if the team are trying to play a power/ speed game, being efficient with play, then that should be a priority in this period instead. Any good plan comes from knowing what it is you are working towards collectively, so all of the coaching staff can organise the training in a systematic way.


St Helens player recovers using Hytro BFR


On progressing through pre-season, and as competition gets closer, the technical and tactical elements start to become a priority. Care needs to be taken when planning these changes in session content, to make sure the risk of injury is as low as possible (potentially from contact), whilst also continuing to push athletes to progress physically too. It takes time to develop physically, and so a blend of technical work and physical work late in the preseason has to be managed safely and with effectiveness in mind.


The primary outputs of pre-season

Rugby pre-seasons generally consist of a General Physical Preparation phase which aims to build maximum outputs by creating a broad base of strength and fitness that helps players perform for longer durations of time, as well as enhancing the ability of players to recover faster between bouts of high-intensity work. As the season gets closer, teams should specifically focus on developing speed, power and anaerobic qualities.


By building up resilience to the work demands of training across pre-season, the risk of injury can be reduced. At some point in pre-season, the technical/ tactical side of training starts to ramp up, but this work can be quite polarised from the actual demands of the sport as there may be a large focus on skill execution or organisation on the field. Anytime that organisation work becomes a focus in training, the intensity will likely drop, and so the management of preseason training plans is a delicate balancing act between technical and physical coaches.  As the season start draws closer, getting the fitness qualities from the training itself is a more efficient approach after most of the hard work has been achieved.


Managing risk in pre-season

Within any planning that takes place, it is integral to plan training phases with progressive overload in mind, as any rapid increase in training load can be a risk for injury. Players can’t be expected to achieve targets expected at the end of pre-season, on day one of pre-season so they will need to build up gradually, increasing volumes of work over the first, second and third week. This will enable players to tolerate higher work demands and intensities and avoid any “spike” in load often associated with injuries. Building capacities week by week as the team progresses through the pre-season will make the risk exponentially less.


A typical week in pre-season

For a rugby team, a typical week will be scheduled to enable the athletes to develop in the areas of speed, change of direction, strength, power, and fitness, whilst at the same time, catering for the technical tactical demands of the sport. Each day will have a hierarchy of physical need, with more demanding activities being positioned earlier in the week when the players are fresher. Recovery time should be carefully managed, with a schedule of two days of training and one day off resting – but this will be dependent on how a team wishes to operate. That rest day may be still rugby-focused, but of a much lower intensity for example. This model tends to work well with rugby players, as three days of consecutive heavy load training can lead to players picking up injuries through fatigue accumulation.


Managing the high daily demands

To continue to lower the risk of injury, a high level of individualisation is required. Everything mentioned above is on a team level which would be planned out in advance, and high-performance practitioners should create changes in the programme as required based on how athletes are responding to the training load over time. This requires good monitoring systems in order to identify which players are tolerating training well (or less so), as well as informing decisions on what to modify within training in these cases.


St Helens player recovers using Hytro BFR


Recovery will always remain a huge part of any athlete’s training cycle, especially in pre-season. But some modalities tend to be avoided in pre-season, like cryotherapy for example, because it’s been shown to potentially blunt the adaptive responsive of strength and power training, and often gets saved for really important periods of the year like in-season.


A proven but underutilised recovery tool is Blood Flow Restriction (BFR). Research shows it can accelerate and restore function quickly during a recovery period, and there is the potential to avoid a blunting response to the training an athlete is trying to adapt to as well. Alongside the important keystones of sleep and nutrition, Recovery BFR can be a powerful tool added after training, match-play, and during recovery or “rest” days.


Using training and recovery tools in groups

One of the biggest problems faced by large squads’ during the pre-season is time spent at the club vs time spent alone at home with family. The more something can be applied or supplied for players to use at home effectively, the better their recovery has the potential to be.


Dan Howells, Hytro Elite Performance Consultant, shares: “We’re seeing a huge number of squads use Hytro BFR wearables in a variety of settings thanks to its ease of application. Large groups can tackle recovery together because of how easy it is to strap in and utilise the method. The fact that Hytro has created the first wearable BFR product also means that this type of recovery can now take place at home on an individual level, as well as at the club. It is also great to see players not only feeling the benefit of BFR for recovery but also understanding why they are feeling this way, because of the method being underpinned by science and evidence. Player buy-in is key for any recovery modality, and athletes want to know that methods are safe to use, but also that they feel good from it, and we are certainly receiving great feedback in both these areas.”


Dan Howells Hytro Elite Performance Consultant wearing Hytro hoodie


Monitoring the response to training load

Using objective markers to understand what training has occurred is important. Traditional technology like GPS monitors within running-based sports are going to show distances, accelerations and deceleration, and sprinting speeds. A ‘typical load’ can then be calculated for each athlete and can serve as a reference point for decision-making. This might look like adding more work into a training week, or in contrast, adding in more recovery time or modalities within a given training period, based on how athletes are responding to the training programme.


If looking to add more recovery time to an athlete, Recovery BFR provides a simple and safe solution that players can implement themselves whilst at the club, at home or even travelling on the road. To learn more about Recovery BFR read our journal Accelerate your recovery with Blood Flow Restriction.


Hytro’s brand purpose has always been to find innovative ways to simplify the training problems that coaches and athletes face and provide innovative performance solutions, that allow us to maximise athletic potential.


It brings to the fore a common discussion topic on whether we are reaching the ceiling of physical development and human performance, with the advancements in recent years of training science and application.  So, do we now need to consider whether new barriers will be surpassed by the ability to enhance recovery to new levels with advancements in this area? Smarter recovery may be the way forward.


To learn more from Dan Howells and understand how we helps hundreds of other Coaches through his physical performance and mentor site visit Collaborate Sports.



To find out about how elite athletes and practitioners are using Hytro BFR, or to enquire about Hytro BFR for your team check out the Elite Sport page:


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