Improving speed in Rugby Union: exploring a short to long approach

Written by Jordan Cassidy

June 14, 2020

I’m currently a sports scientist for the Hong Kong Rugby Union (HKRU) Elite Rugby Program (ERP), and also an athletic development coach for the HKRU 7’s academy. In this post I discuss the ERP’s August 2019 pre-season block, where we focused on speed training, with the purpose of making our players faster. I’ll begin by providing an overview of our program, including a bit about our context and associated challenges, before sharing what we learnt from this pre-season experience.  


The ERP is a feeder program for the Hong Kong (HK) National Rugby team, with players in the ERP also representing a club team in HK during the domestic club season, which runs from September to February. July is the off-season period for the ERP, which follows the two international competitions: Global Rapid Rugby (March – May) and the Asian Rugby Championship in June. When players return to pre-season, as they did on the 1st of August 2019, we implement a 4-week “individual development block” within the ERP, before players return to their clubs in September. This provides a nice opportunity as a strength and conditioning coach to focus on a specific physical quality without distraction, being relatively far away from the critical competition period.
This article will detail the specific training program we used in our speed group to hit the Type 6 target (Figure 1), specifically with the aim of developing a player’s speed.

Figure 1: HIIT Type 6 response.



As detailed in Figure 2, the training program revolved around three key elements: 1) speed training pitch sessions, 2) a gym-based program, and 3) movement skills. This allowed us to alternate between hard (Monday and Thursday) and easy training days (Tuesday and Friday), allowing periods of stress and recovery.

Figure 2: Weekly microcycle used for the speed (Type 6) focus macrocycle.

Specific to speed training, we implemented a short-to-long loading progression, as described in Table 1.

Table 1: Detailed speed session layout with progressions.

This was used to progressively expose players to maximum velocities across the four-week period. On the easier training days, we put players through a movement skills program, as detailed in Table 2.

Table 2: Movement skills session structure.

Sprinting distances involved a combination of partner tag, reaction drills into a sprint and always finished with a straight sprint race to ensure players were given the opportunity to reach their maximum velocity for the given distance (see video below).   All players were put through 40-m sprint tests as well as the 30-15 Intermittent Fitness Test (30-15IFT)  both before and after the 4-week speed-focused program. The maximal sprinting speed (MSS) was calculated by taking the running speed of each athlete between 30m and 40m of their sprint test. During each session, players wore a GPS device to monitor speed exposure.  


Figure 1.  Team and individual changes in maximal sprint speed (MSS) before and after the 4 weeks of speed training. Conditioning formatting in orange represents a change superior to the smallest worthwhile change (SWC) set at 2% (1). Conditioning formatting In gree represents a change superior to the SWC and the typical error (TE) set at 2.9% (1). M stands for mean and SD for standard deviation.

Figure 2: Maximum velocity (line graph) for each individual player and average sprint volume across the group (column chart) in each session based on GPS analysis (Statsports APEX units). Sprint volume was defined as anything above 85% of a player’s maximal sprinting speed.

Figure 3.  Team and individual changes in the 30-15IFT score before and after the 4 weeks of speed training. Conditioning formatting in green represents a change superior to the smallest worthwhile change (SWC) set at 0.21 km.h-1 (2). Conditioning formatting In orange represents a change superior to the SWC and the typical error (TE) set at 0.36 km.h-1 (2). M stands for mean and SD for standard deviation.

  Expressing a players’ VIFT as a percentage of their MSS can assist with establishing individual player work-ons. Taking two examples from Table 3 above we see that:
  • Player 2 recorded the highest score in the 30-15 IFT, and highest percentage score when his VIFT was expressed as a percentage of his MSS. However, his MSS was the lowest of the group. This indicates that his weakness is anaerobic power/maximal sprinting speed.
  • Player 3, on the other hand, recorded a worse score in the 30-15 IFT when his VIFT was expressed as a percentage of his MSS in comparison to Player 2. This suggests that Player 3 is quite strong anaerobically/neuromuscularly and his weakness is more likely his aerobic engine.
  An important point to note however, is the specific needs of each position. Player 2 plays as a scrumhalf. For him to do his job well, he needs to be able to get around the pitch from breakdown to breakdown, and these positional demands require a high aerobic capacity. Player 3, on the other hand, is a winger, and his position demands explosive actions and he is not required to cover as much ground around the pitch during a game as a scrumhalf. This is why it is important to be aware of the specific demands of each playing position so you can then design training programs to allow players to excel in their positions, rather than training each player in a general fashion (as per this example), which may blunt the specific qualities a player needs to shine in their role for the team. The key results related to speed for the group are shown below in Figures 3 and 4.    


Reflection is a critical part of the coaching process, as it allows both the positive and negative aspects of the training experience to be considered. Mine are as follows: Benefits of the short-to-long approach: The loading progression for the speed portion of the program allowed players to sprint maximally, even in the first week back after a four-week off-season break. As shown in Figure 3, there was generally an upward trend of maximum speed exposure from most of the players involved in the program.
By using shorter sprint training distances during the early sessions of the program, we were able to gradually expose players to a higher percentage of their maximum velocity in each session.
A four-week speed program might help get player’s faster, but it won’t prepare them for the game demands: While players in the group got faster with the program, it did not prepare them for a competitive rugby season adequately, mainly for two reasons:
  1. Many players broke down with injury in the early months of the season, and player performances were below expected standards. Acceleration and speed are just one of several qualities needed for performance in rugby union. Endurance, contact conditioning, technical skills and tactical awareness also must be trained to ensure a rugby union player is prepared to play through their season.
  2. From a game demand standpoint (as measured through GPS), players were only prepared for the sprint volume demands of a game. Players were not prepared for the total distance demands, number of accelerations, high speed running, and they also had no exposure to the technical demands of rugby – rucking/counter-rucking, tackling etc.
The program detailed might be more suitable to the off-season phase of a player’s year.
However, the pre-season and in-season periods should apply a more holistic approach, taking aim at preparing players for the full demands of their sport. This was one of my biggest learnings and how I operate now. Specific focus on qualities in isolation should be reserved for a player’s off-season break.
Plan progressions but be reactive to adaptations: A lot of time was invested in creating “the perfect program” from a loading point of view (short-to-long approach detailed above). Each week, the sprint distances of each session gradually increased; the session sprint volume gradually increased (Figure 4), as did the intensity. This was evident in session 5 of our speed program (Figure 3 – reduced maximum speed exposure and reduced sprint volume), where the session needed to be modified as many players were pulling up sore. Why? As described in HIIT Science (Chapter 8 and 9), load is one thing, but the response to load is a completely different beast. Adaptation is a complex phenomenon.
Give two players the same program and it is highly unlikely they will get the same results.
Some players were able to tolerate the training load in the program, whereas most players were pulling up sore in their screening and wellness inventories. This might be down to the fact that some players maintained their physical conditioning over the off-season, compared to some players who did minimal work. Some players may have consistently recovered well over each session, some players were less focused on sleep quality, and an uncountable number of other contextual factors. Ultimately, no matter how much time and effort a coach invests in a program, they must be willing to adapt if the program needs to be changed. The carrot or the stick: Feeding GPS monitoring data back to players was useful for enhancing engagement. Relaying back the top speed efforts to the players, post speed session meant players WANTED to wear their GPS bib. Previously, we had always fined players for not having a GPS bib for their unit. While the fine system worked for some, it didn’t for all. Some need a carrot – some need a stick.  


While we achieved what we set out to achieve with this 4-week program (players got faster), practitioners should consider the bigger picture for team sport performance optimization – there are numerous physiological and psychological qualities needed for optimal performance and simply training one or two will lead to players being unprepared, which will manifest either in injury or below-par performance. I would like to thank the team at HIIT Science for allowing me the opportunity to share my thoughts and experiences here. Hopefully, it stimulates some discussion and an opportunity to engage with other practitioners.  

About the author

        Jordan Cassidy works at the Hong Kong Rugby Union as a Sports Scientist and Strength and Conditioning coach. He works across two programs – the Elite Rugby Program (which services the National Mens XV’s Rugby team), and also the Podium Academy program (which feeds into National U20s teams, both VII’s and XV’s).  


1. Haugen, T and Buchheit, M. Sprint Running Performance Monitoring : Methodological and Practical Considerations. Sport Med , 2015. 2. Scott, TJ, Delaney, JA, Duthie, GM, Sanctuary, CE, Ballard, DA, Hickmans, JA, et al. Reliability and Usefulness of the 30-15 Intermittent Fitness Test in Rugby League. J Strength Cond Res 29: 1985–1990, 2015.  

You May Also Like…

Listen to Your Body, Not Your Heart: How to Optimize Endurance Training Results with “Self-Reported Stress Tolerance”

Listen to Your Body, Not Your Heart: How to Optimize Endurance Training Results with “Self-Reported Stress Tolerance”

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.


Featured Courses


STOP WORRYING about your SPEED & POWER sessions &
START INDIVIDUALISED training for ALL your athletes!

Please check your email inbox and confirm your participation.