Having spent a few very good years as head rugby coach at a federal military college (with a national DI ranking of 13), I have some strong opinions on endurance training for athletes. In short, you need to have just enough endurance to play your sport at (as near) full speed as possible for the duration of a game or match. That’s it. As a coach I never had my players run more than a couple of laps during training (total) – we never did any conditioning that didn’t look like a game situation. Put another way, if you’re a football player, you don’t need to ever run a single continuous mile in training – because you don’t ever run a mile on the field. For rugby league players, who typically run about 5 kilometers in an 80 minute game, running long distances is equally stupid (most people can walk 5km in 80 minutes).
Police who run a mile in training aren’t doing themselves any favors, and they’d probably get better carryover from some sprint work. I’d rather be a fast sprinter and catch a criminal within the first 50m than have a ton of endurance and try to leg it out over a mile. When’s the last time you saw a guy on COPSchase a crackhead on foot for a mile? (I’d also like to point out the fact that the cameramen, who follow the officers whilst carrying a microphone boom, a camera, and full video gear, are easily able to keep up – if not outrun them).
The weight room prescription for my athletes was to take 3 exercises that looked like the 3 movements that the individual player performed most frequently on the field, and then applying a Westside template to those movements as if they were the three traditional powerlifts. In other words, we tried to hit PRs in those lifts and assistance work was combined with speed and max effort work to drive those three lifts up. The kids got stronger at the stuff they did on the field, and as a result, their endurance went up. Assistance work for something like a deadlift could be anything from kettlebell swings to tire flips. Pretty simple. But when you’re strong, you use less energy to perform the same tasks as someone weaker than you – meaning they’ll tire out before you, even if your endurance is basically the same. And because our training resembled our playing (as closely as possible), the carryover was nearly 100%. So yeah, wingers still had to run as fast as possible and forwards still spent the majority of their time banging into each other.
There was a myth in the early days of sports training that “stronger” athletes will fatigue more quickly. But all things being equal, this isn’t the case. Weaker athletes fatigue more quickly than stronger athletes, and the effect is generally thought to be one of conditioning, but it’s really an effect of strength. Lance Armstrong got a lot better when he got a lot stronger, and he credits his strength training as the factor that made him into the world’s best cyclist – even though he was an endurance athlete. The majority of his training in both the weight room, and on his bike, resembled the kinds of things he did on the road; single leg step ups, etc…combined with riding, were his staples.
Training, of both the strength and skill varieties respectively, ought to resemble game-playing demands as closely as possible, in order to achieve the maximal effect on improving practical (i.e. competition) endurance. And this is why a lot of rugby league players have turned to strongman competition type training. Notice I didn’t say “strongman training” – and instead I saidstrongman competition type training? That’s because the thing you watch on ESPN2 is a strongman competition, not actual strongman training. Most strongman trainingresembles traditional sports training and powerlifting. The things they do in competition are highly specific to their craft – tire flipping, for example, is a skill that you can get very good at, even if you’re not superhuman-strong; we see high skill levels with a lot of the more complex events (the keg toss, caber throw). So when we watch these guys competing, we’re not watching them train…if we were to watch them train, we’d see a lot more traditional barbell stuff.
Which brings me back to the point of strength being a huge contributing factor in game-time endurance. The stronger guys in these competitions will often be the guys who appear to have more endurance, although if we looked at them in a traditional endurance event (a 5k race or whatever), we’d probably see that they were all about the same. A guy who can squat 500 lbs is going to expend more energy in most of these events versus a guy who can squat 750, assuming similar skill levels.
With this in mind, as a final thought, the strength and conditioning coach (Dr. Daniel Baker) for the Brisbane Broncos (yanks feel free to Google them), put the lads through a strongman contest-style workout for conditioning – because it more closely resembles the types of movements and energy demands seen on the pitch. And what happened? Even though it was a mixed pace conditioning session, the stronger players (those who could bench and squat more) never hit the same heart rates* as the weaker guys, regardless of bodyweight (*results from the session posted below). This tells me that (all things being equal), the stronger players were expending less energy to achieve the same amount of work and performance, and that their endurance was greatly improved through their higher strength levels: