An interview with Julien Robineau

Written by Paul Laursen

July 4, 2020

Julien Robineau (right in picture) is the S&C coach for the French male rugby sevens team and is one of the lecturers for our Rugby 7’s course. In addition to his field-based duties, Julien is also an applied researcher, who obtained his PhD in 2013 in the area of concurrent training optimization in rugby players. We had the chance to catch-up with Julien’s latest, which covered topics as diverse as the unique competition demands of Rugby sevens, as well as some insight into how HIIT can be used effectively in the Rugby sevens context.   HIIT Science: How was training affected by the COVID-19 lockdown? Julien Robineau (JR): It was brutal! A few days after coming back from Vancouver (one of the HSBC world series tournaments), the lockdown was announced in France (i.e. mid-March). During this period, players were furloughed. Consequently, I couldn’t interact with them or create an S&C program due to the French work policy. It was a mess. But with their training experience, players kept training as best as they could. After 2 months, we were allowed to get in touch with the players again, and the first thing we did was a diagnostic covering what they had completed from a training standpoint using an online questionnaire. Interestingly, their training was mainly related to their current location. While players based in the countryside trained pretty well, those located in cities did not.   HIIT Science: What are the next steps for your team now? JR: At the moment (the interview was made at the beginning of June), players have already been performing an individual home-based program. At the start of July, we’ll restart team training for a couple of weeks, followed by another period of holidays imposed by French work policy. We expect to restart our normal preseason at the beginning of August. However, we still do not have any idea about the fixture for the next season.   HIIT Science: Let’s talk about Rugby sevens! Could you tell us a bit more about Rugby sevens and its physiological demands? JR: When we speak about physiological demands in Rugby sevens, we need to understand the global picture first. Indeed, compared to Rugby Union, Rugby sevens fixtures are very different. The male HSBC World Series consists of five competition legs consisting of two tournaments interspersed by one week. Each leg is played on a different continent, separated by just four weeks. A tournament itself is composed of five to six games over the course of two to three days, where each game is interspersed by 2-4 hours. Consequently, this requires us to consider the whole picture when we think about physiological contributions. Indeed, this particular format induces different question for us, such as match preparation, warm-up, recovery across different time scales, travel (we recently published a paper about this topic) and so on.

Figure 1. Rugby sevens fixture. The matching colours correspond to one leg where tournaments are interspersed by one week. Each is separated by 4 to 6 weeks.

  Specific to the physical demands, Rugby sevens is highly demanding from a metabolic and neuromuscular standpoint. Indeed, a game is very short and sharp (2*7min with 2 min half time). During those periods, players are required to perform high-intensity actions such as sprints, changes of direction, accelerations, tackles and so on. Over a tournament, a player runs between 20-25 km and 25% of this total distance will be performed at high-intensity (i.e. above 18 km.h-1 in our set-up). This suggest an important contribution of the anaerobic glycolytic pathway and neuromuscular system. Of course, the tournament format also requires a well-developed aerobic system in order to be able to maintain such a high activity over the entire tournament. Indeed, if you make a comparison with Rugby Union, the sum total of the sevens game performed over the entire tournament elicits a higher external load.   HIIT Science: What are the main physical qualities you target? JR: A Rugby sevens player needs a well developed anaerobic and neuromuscular system, without neglecting the aerobic development. However, it is important to consider the tactics that coaches want to apply. This influences your whole physical development program. Here, we think that speed development is the key factor to work on based on our game plan. Hence, an important emphasis for us is put on anaerobic glycolytic development and the ability to repeat high-intensity efforts, such as sprint and combat activities (ruck, tackles etc).   HIIT Science: What are the key HIIT weapons you use to develop an elite Rugby sevens player? JR: Regarding the HIIT weapons, it depends mainly on the period of the season (preseason vs in season). Indeed, during the early stage of preseason, we use mainly some short and long intervals to stimulate mainly the aerobic pathway, and we build these up to higher intensity with proper progression. Those strategies are also used during return-to-play periods when a player is injured. However, we shift quite early toward developing the ability to repeat high-intensity efforts through repeated sprint (or mixed with combat) ability or sprint interval training, as explained in HIIT Science. Additionally, we also use small-sided games, and we use this approach often because it aligns with our tactical goals and works nicely for Rugby 7s.   HIIT Science: How do you manipulate physiological responses to HIIT sessions? JR: It is an important part of the job because these manipulations allow us to align with the desired physiological target of our sessions or training blocks (as shown in the figure below).

Figure 2. Key structural and metabolic targets of importance with HIIT, including the aerobic oxidative system, the anaerobic glycolytic system, and the neuromuscular system.

  First, it can be easily done by adjusting the training load related to the session by manipulating the total volume of the session. As we know, the intensity and recovery allow us to target either more aerobic or anaerobic demands. Due to the high running demands related to rugby sevens training we have also an important focus on the neuromuscular load related to the session. For example, if we observe at the end of the week through our monitoring process that players are experiencing serious DOMS, we will adapt the session by decreasing the number of changes of direction or the number sprints. Likewise, we can completely switch the plan and propose off-feet conditioning or even a swimming session in order to decrease this neuromuscular strain.   HIIT Science:  How do you balance game-based-HIIT and other HIIT weapons? JR: Once again it will depend mainly on the period of the season. The proportion is more in favour of formal HIIT Weapons at the start and we move toward more small-sided games as we approach the competitive period. In season, it is exclusively a small-sided games approach with individual top-ups as necessary.   HIIT Science: Tactical periodization: How do you align physical, technical and tactical content with coaches? JR: It is an important point and in fact crucial. It is very important to make the sessions blend seamlessly. Indeed, while the tactical content must be appropriate for this specific period, it might not be the case for some of the physiological aspects. This is where working as a staff is very important. Here, my main input will be to guide and advise concerning the variables (number of players, pitch size, contact or not), which may affect the physiological responses – this is done in alignment with the present physiological objectives.   HIIT Science: Random question… is there any particular HIIT session throughout your S&C carer that you remember vividly? JR:  Hahaha… this is a tough one as there are so many! If I have to choose, it would be the following. It was just before the first tournament of the season in Dubai 2019-2020. It was a session in the environmental chamber with the whole team. We reproduced similar conditions as Dubai (40°C), and did 3 blocks of 5*6sec sprints on the bike interspersed randomly with long sprints (30 sec). While nothing may be considered out of the ordinary compared with the usual session, we decided to display video highlights across the former season, and this was a game changer! In fact, players were so excited to view their previous season that it made the session unbelievable, with full commitment, great team support, good fun and massive intensity. Perhaps motivation and other psychological aspects for some variables are not manipulated enough in our practice.   HIIT Science: How do you monitor training load? JR: Like most of my colleagues around the world, I use GPS technology to gain a global overview concerning the external load. Regarding internal load, RPE is a must I feel, as it allows inclusion of gym work. I used to use many different monitoring tools to assess the response to the load (CMJ, CPK, sleep etc). However, I have since reduced drastically the number of methods employed due to the burden of it all, and the lack of player buy-in sometimes. I’m using a wellness questionnaire on a weekly or fortnightly basis. On top of that, I make sure I maintain a regular chat with each player throughout the week. Additionally, I have an assistant sport scientist (Nicolas Lopez) who helps me a lot, and I could not do the job without him.   HIIT Science: Do you consider any non-training interferences? JR: Yes, we do. It is something we neglected in the past but the further we go, the more we notice its importance. Based on the fixture, we could be qualified as a “sport nomad”. Indeed, we are away more than 6 months per year, and even more so when it is Olympics or world cup time. This can affect some players who are far from their families and this need to be considered in our context. Consequently, we try to give our players as much time with their family as we can. To achieve that, we provide more and more home-based programs in order to keep them in shape, and it seems we have a good buy-in from the team. Another point we consider is what we refer to as the “double project “(combined academic and sport career). Some of our players follow such pathways and need to be guided, or need additional support. From an S&C/training perspective, this can be achieved through small adjustments in the program (individual session, recovery).   HIIT Science: We would like to thank Julien for his time, insight and thorough answers. If you want to follow his work, check out some of the useful links below:   Twitter: ResearchGate: Online course: The Application of High-Intensity Interval Training for Rugby 7s

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Have you ever thought about what tools are best for telling us when to apply HIIT the next time? How do we know when we will handle it again without driving our athlete into overtraining or injury risk? If you’ve read our ​book​ or taken our ​course​, you’ll know about how important this variable will be when we look to design the ideal program. Both heart rate variability and subjective comments were key factors we discussed. But is one better than the other?
Maybe. We’ve stumbled upon an incredible study that might just help clear our thoughts on the matter in terms of athlete readiness and when to apply HIIT again in the future to maximize performance potential. The blog post written by ​Diego Hilgemberg Figueiredo​ compares training plans guided by either HRV or subjective inner feelings. The findings may surprise you. Check out a sneak peak in the graphic below as to why heart rate and HRV can’t always bring us certainty around readiness to perform. They’re good, and helpful, but you must know your context! Combine it with feel to get the most power in your programming.


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