When the British & Irish Lions toured Australia during their famous 2013 win, they were backed by a battalion of backroom staff, including a cryogenic recovery expert. In a game where the merest millimetre, the final second, the last breath can make the difference between defeat and victory, it is little wonder that science plays an enormous role.
This is especially true in the field of rugby biomechanics, the study of the mechanical laws relating to the movement, exertions and fitness of rugby players. And all this science trickles down to you, as you can use the findings of rugby sports science to improve your game.
It is rocket science
Nowadays, a great deal more is known about how to maximise your performance through science, and how this knowledge can protect you from certain injuries. At the highest level, physiotherapists, who understand the functional demands of rugby, ask professional players about their injury histories.
The scientists then run biomechanical tests of their movement mechanics to assess how their bodies work on the field of play. The information gleaned from these years of constant assessment and fine-tuning will help you to become a better player – in safety.
Shouldering the burden
One of the key successes of rugby biomechanics has been an improved knowledge of how to max your ‘lats’ (also known as ‘latissimus dorsi’, or, simply put, your main shoulder muscle).
Your lats enable your shoulder to stand firm in the tackle, reach for that high ball in the lineout, and grab your opponent, so it is vital that you work on your deadlifts and pull-up exercises to keep them in the best condition you can – and you’ll play better.
Shoulder injuries are the bane of the rugby player, so you can also try to increase the mobility and range of your lats by over-head squats. The lats also work with the thoracolumbar fascia, the elastic tissue in your lower back, to protect your spine, so focus on improving your shoulders’ power, movement and range right now.
Your knees are your MVP
Injuries to knees account for the greatest time spent off the sports fields, so rugby sports science has long fixed its gaze upon their protection. For you, this means training your hamstrings to act as your knees’ bodyguard, supporting the anterior cruciate ligaments by supporting the shin.
Injuries to your hammies largely happen during sprints so it’s doubly vital to work on them if you play in the back three. Split squats and lunges, slow deadlifts and controlled leg presses will help your hamstrings in different ways. You can practise deceleration during sprints and make cutting movements to aid the conditioning of your knees. The result will be you can change direction and speed without fear of ‘knee knack’.
Don’t be cowed – look after your calves
The hulks in the front row can thank the rugby biometric scientists and physios for making their lives easier. Simply put, the hooker and props suffer the bulk of ankle and calf problems as they must deal with ever-changing surface conditions while exerting great force.
If you play in these positions, focus on building your calf muscle strength through controlled calf raises and by running uphill, rather than on the flat. You should add proprioceptive activities such as balancing on one leg to increase reactivity.
Strong spine = restful mind
One of the greatest fears rugby players have is a spinal injury. While conditioning your lats can help towards preventing this, alas, the head and neck are increasingly being used as a lever arm to ‘clear out’, so it is a common injury. You therefore need to really build up your neck muscles to protect your spine.
So, try simple neck shrugs and rolls and light-resistance weights, and perhaps ask your doctor for exercises because the neck is simply too delicate to muck around with. Let your hips and shoulders produce the force; let them be mobile and powerful instead; and let them protect your spine and neck.