Strength & Conditioning

Rugby HIIT Training: 5 ‘Weapons’ For Effective Workouts

Sonny Bill Williams Rugby HIIT Training

Rugby HIIT training, what is it and why it is essential? We break down the importance and benefits of HIIT workouts for every position on the field.

Make no mistake: The Rugby field is a battlefield. Every person on the field has a role to play. And their fate is intimately bound with those of his or her teammates. Stalemate, crushing defeat or ultimate victory is determined by the culmination of individual struggles. Therefore each player must stand ready to answer their own call of duty. How best then to prepare each position for ther mission?

In their new book, Science and Application of High-Intensity Interval Training editors Paul Laursen and Martin Buchhei set themselves the target of finding the ultimate strategy for sporting success through the training technique of HIIT. In this article adapted from the book we explain what HIIT is, the five conceptual HIIT ‘Weapons’ and three sample applications of these weapons you can deploy for the win. We also detail the physical attributes and athletic characteristics each position must embody.

What is HIIT?

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) has become widespread in the world of sport and fitness. It is usually defined as exercise consisting of repeated bouts of high-intensity work performed above the lactate threshold (a perceived effort of “hard” or greater) or critical speed/power, interspersed by periods of low-intensity exercise or complete rest. As we will outline, there are many ways that definition can be achieved, however, figure 1.1 provides a broad illustration of the concept.

Diagram of high-intensity interval training (HIIT)
Figure 1.1 Schematic diagram illustrating the general concept of high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

The general basis of high-intensity interval training can be described simply as follows: Imagine performing a bout of exercise at an intensity above your lactate threshold, or critical velocity/power. To be clear here, this is an exercise intensity that is unsustainable and one at which your brain would eventually force you to lower your intensity if you were to sustain it for as long as you could. It feels hard and you know that fatigue would be inevitable at this pace if you were to hold on. Higher levels of sugar-burning glycolysis are needed generally to sustain the energy demand and lactate accumulates to high levels typically at the point of fatigue.

Now, if we took that same high-intensity effort and separated it with pauses that included periods of complete rest or lower levels of active recovery, that glycolytic energy rate is eased so that lactate production is more in check, whilst the cardiovascular strain remains high and perceived effort, although still high, is reduced and manageable. This is one of the features of HIIT that absolutely fascinated the authors of Science and Application of High-Intensity Interval Training when they first started research into the topic. As shown early by Per-Olof Åstrand and colleagues (2,10), metabolic rate can be as high as the maximal rate of oxygen uptake (O2max), yet reasonably tolerated at relatively low concentrations of blood lactate (i.e., <4mM). From this work and others in the field, interval training was originally proposed as a method that allowed athletes to do greater volumes of conditioning work with less physiological strain.

Why HIIT Works

Ultimately, this broken exercise format of HIIT enables either a more manageable training session with the same training stress, or alternatively, the accumulation of a greater total amount of a high-intensity exercise stimulus if the sequence continues to be repeated.

To be clear, by performing such high-intensity work intermittently instead of continuously, a person can maintain a high-intensity stimulus for longer, with less accumulated physical strain, and with beneficial adaptations that can be specific to sport demands.

While interval training can be associated with a high degree of physical effort, fatigue and acute discomfort, when applied properly with adequate recovery, it clearly has been shown to elicit rapid improvements in various aspects of performance and physiology.

Rugby Training ‘Weapons’

Like soldiers going into battle, we need weapons. Paul Laursen and Martin Buchheit authors of Science and Application of High-Intensity Interval Training believe there are five key weapons (or formats) we can use to form weapons, or HIIT formats, to induce the appropriate acute response we are after to build our ultimate athletes.

The 5 Rugby HIIT training weapons (or formats) include:

  1. Short intervals
  2. Long intervals
  3. Repeated sprint training
  4. Sprint interval training
  5. Game-based HIIT

These weapons can be used for different combat operations, depending on our physiological targets.

Rugby HIIT Training

Both Rugby Union and League are intermittent high-intensity sports. Here we will be focusing on Rugby Union which is characterised by periods of intense activity such as sprints, tackles, accelerations, decelerations, rucks, mauls and scrums, interspersed with low-intensity periods primarily consisting of walking and jogging (5, 7, 28).

Big tackles Rugby Training HIIT

Research using time-motion analysis and wearable tracking technologies such as a global positioning systems (GPS) shows activity profiles that vary between playing positions (15, 21). Like many sports, the intensity is typically shown to increase as the competition standard rises (5, 21). As well, during match play, backs tend to cover a greater total distance, more high-intensity running distance (6 to 8 m/s) and very high-speed running distance (>8 m/s) than forwards (1, 21, 25). The positional requirements of forward play require that these players perform higher volumes of high-intensity activity (22), repeated high-intensity efforts (15) and contact loads (21) than backs.

Relative Contribution of Physical Performance

Possessing certain physical attributes is important for Rugby Union players, but is of limited value if the athlete does not possess the specific positional skills and game understanding, which are fundamental to performance.

It is clear from existing data that as the level of competition gets higher, the positional skills and understanding of the game improves. In saying this, however, so too do the physical capabilities of the athletes.

“When it comes to the match, the team that is likely to win tends to be the team that can execute the game plan at the highest intensity level for the game duration.”

When it comes to the match, the team that is likely to win tends to be the team that can execute the game plan at the highest intensity level for the game duration. This means the positional skills need to be accurate, the understanding of the game plan needs to be sound and players must have the physical capacity to execute all required tasks at a high intensity for 80 minutes. At the very least, rugby players need to be fit enough to tolerate the requirements of their positions and have the ability to execute their roles under fatigue, under pressure and within many dynamic and fast-changing situations.

The varying requirements of the multiple Rugby Union positions (described below), a rugby player generally requires very high levels of strength and the ability to repeatedly and effectively express that strength and power over the entire game duration. Players maintain heart rates close to 90% of maximum (4) hence, HIIT becomes a vital component in the arsenal of the conditioning programme designed to enhance metabolic aspects and repeated high-intensity requirements vital to Rugby Union success.

Rugby Union positions
Rugby Union positions

Targets of Physical Performance in Rugby Union

The physical characteristics of Rugby Union players and the differences between positions and playing levels are well documented. Essentially, forwards are typically heavier and stronger than backs, while backs are faster and more agile than forwards (19). The differences between positions are related to the differences in the position-specific tasks performed during a match. For example, time-motion analysis and the use of GPS have shown backs travel farther, sprint farther and more frequently, and have lower work: rest ratios than forwards (1, 4, 6, 7).

A Position for Every Build

There is no doubt all top level rugby players are big, strong and athletic. However, body types and physical demands do vary depending on position.

Tight Forwards

The front row and second row play vital roles in securing possession of the ball in the restarts, lineouts and scrum situations during the game.

Due to the required tasks of these players, strength and power are very important assets for pushing, jumping and tackling. While these players are also typically the heaviest members of the team, the need for aerobic fitness is also important, as they will typically cover 4 to 6 km in a game.

Offensively and defensively these players are in the closer channels to the high-contact ruck and maul situations and can make between 10 and 30 tackles a game. Lean muscle mass, strength, and power are therefore crucial physical attributes for these players to perform their core roles.

Tight forwards are nearly always over 100kg at international level, it is not uncommon to see props weighing in over 125kg as long as they can maintain their fitness levels it is an advantage being heavy, especially as a prop.

Below you can see the World Cup winning New Zealander, Owen Franks training at a high intensity in the gym. Owen stands at 6’1 and weighs around 117kg.

Back Row

Sometimes called loose forwards. They play in the flanker (numbers 6 & 7) and No. 8 positions.

These players are typically involved in running with the ball and tackling in slightly wider channels than tight forwards.

Often referred to as the ‘everywhere men’ these players have an important role in the restarts, lineouts and scrums, they also have a role in linking the tight forwards with the backs and getting into a number of positions quickly to have an influence on the game. Turning over the ball (stealing from the opposition) and supporting line breaks is an important role and requires speed, power and a high level of anaerobic and aerobic metabolic conditioning.

The video below shows the importance of a good flanker, they make important tackles and game changing runs and tries.

Some of the best players in this position include George Smith (Aus), Chris Robshaw (Eng) and Richie McCaw (NZ). Flankers and No. 8’s are usually heavy and powerful, again usually over 100kg but not usually as heavy as tight forwards, however they are usually taller.

Inside Backs

Numbers 9, 10, and 12 (scrum-half, fly-half and inside centre) are typically smaller than most other players (weight typically varies from 77kg-95kg). They are typically are the kickers of the team. Kickers are crucial as they score the most points, as most points come from a combination of penalty kicks and converstions.

Their tactical nous and game understanding is typically very high as they are called on to drive the team around the field. Due to the natural link between the forwards and the outside backs, these players must possess a balance of speed, power, endurance and agility.

Some of the best halfbacks include Aaron Smith (Aus), Ruan Pienaar (SA), Conor Murray (Ire), Jonny Wilkinson (Eng) and legendary Gareth Edwards (Wal). Centres include Brian O’Driscoll (Ire) and Sonny Bill Williams (NZ).

Outside Backs

As the outside backs have a major role in finishing plays (scoring tries), counterattacking and chasing kicks, these players are typically explosive and very fast runners of the ball. Typically the leanest players on the field, they often cover the most distance in a game (especially the fullback). Often distances of sprints for these players are longer than all other players on the field. Backs come in a variety of shapes and sizes, some tall, some heavy, some not so tall or heavy, however, they are usually bigger than your average man on the street. The most important thing is that they are fit, fast and can run with the ball.

Below is a video of the late great Jonah Lomu, one of the best wingers of all time, he stood at 6’4 and weighed around 120kg but showed incredible pace, strength and fitness.

Quite often wingers can play in the fullback position too. Notable wingers include David Campese (Aus), Nemani Nadolo (Fij) and Jonah Lomu (NZ). Notable fullbacks include Serge Blanco (Fra), Leigh Halfpenny (Wal) and Gavin Hastings (Sco).

Match Demands

Austin et al. (1) found that the work:rest ratios of Super 14 Rugby Union players were 1:4, 1:5, and 1:6 for front row and back row forwards, inside backs, and outside backs, respectively. During gameplay, players cover a substantial distance and are involved in multiple high-intensity running and nonrunning activities (1, 11, 13, 20).

The demands of professional Rugby Union matches between the years 2008 and 2015 were reported by Hogarth and colleagues (13), who showed that the distance covered by players during a match ranged from 4662 to 7227 m, depending on playing position and the level of competition.

The 33 to 39 min ball-in-play duration of a match and the total distance covered by players suggest that there is a significant demand on a player’s aerobic system to provide the required energy to perform the necessary activities over this period of time (8). During most competition matches, the duration of each play (whistle to whistle) typically depends on the level of competition, but lasts for 35 s on average, although some periods of play can last up to 6 min.

In addition to requiring a well-conditioned aerobic system, a significant demand is placed on the player’s anaerobic system due to the intermittent short high-intensity running and nonrunning activities that occur throughout a match (4, 6, 8). Austin et al. (1) found that the passive:high-intensity task work ratio (nonrunning:scrum, ruck, maul) varied the most between the forwards and backs, with front rowers and back rowers performing the most of these tasks (62 ± 13 and 68 ± 15, respectively) and the inside and outside backs completing only one-third of this type of work (17 ± 7 and 14 ± 5), respectively.

Key Weapons, Manipulations and Surveillance Tools

Developing and monitoring both endurance and high-intensity running abilities are important considerations for many team sport athletes. The enhancement of these qualities can positively impact performance during the repeated bouts of high-intensity activity that occur in professional Rugby Union competition (2, 17, 27). For example, a moderate correlation (r = −0.38) has been shown between match activity rate (tasks/min) and repeated sprint ability (23), while increased aerobic capacity, as determined by maximal aerobic running speed, is correlated (r = 0.746) to increased match running distance in professional Rugby Union players (25).

This evidence supports strategies aimed at enhancement of aerobic endurance and high-intensity running capacity in professional rugby players. However, it is important to acknowledge the complex interplay of physical, technical, tactical, environmental, and cognitive factors that influence competitive match performance, which makes it difficult to directly relate match performance to specific outcomes on physical tests.

Rugby HIIT Training Weapons

Throughout the book; Science and Application of High-Intensity Interval Training, the authors refer to HIIT weapons. Which we learned earlier in the article are short intervals, long intervals, repeated sprint training, sprint interval training and game-based HIIT.

They explain the range of weapons that should be used throughout the year. Including training phases (preseason, in-season, etc.), turnaround time between games, technical and tactical training load and intensity.

They also give adaptions for modified games and Rugby League.

Application of Rugby HIIT Training Wweapons in Workouts

Rugby HIIT Training Weapon 2: Long Intervals

In Science and Application of High-Intensity Interval Training the authors state that they believe that long-interval HIIT is important for all Rugby Union playing positions during the preseason, as well as sometimes during the competition season for certain players (particularly for backs and loose forwards).

Typically, these efforts are made up of 300 to 1,200 m shuttles. Due again to the importance and regularity of deceleration and acceleration, these long intervals have a lot of turns involved. During some parts of the season, these turns may require the player to go to ground and/or bounce to feet before continuing with the effort. Such modifications are made based on the individual’s needs or requirements and current game load. These intervals will usually be on a varied work:rest ratio of 2:1 to 1:1.

Maximal aerobic speed (MAS) blocks are often prescribed in Rugby Union using many different formats (e.g., shuttles, field loops, etc.). Essentially, we prescribe targets using percentages of the vYo-Yo (calculated from YoYo test results; explained further in the book). If you’d like more information on the YoYo test and other HIIT tests have a read of our article Sport-specific high-intensity fitness tests.

Depending on the athlete and the session priority, long-interval sessions could be prescribed first (while fresh and to maximise running speed and performance) with other sessions (e.g., strength and power) scheduled after. However, if strength and power are the priorities for the individual, the priority session will occur in the morning and the session of secondary importance performed later in the day (further expansion on this issue is also discussed in the book Science and Application of High-Intensity Interval Training). The contents of each session, the purpose of each session and the focus for the individual need constant consideration. Sequencing is vital to ensure desired adaptations occur and injury risk is reduced.

Rugby HIIT Training Weapon 3: Repeated sprint training

The use of repeated sprint training (RST) or repeated speed should be included into any rugby training protocol. It is especially highly relevant for backs and loose forwards. The need to run fast during the game occurs often for these players. Therefore developing speed and repeated speed, with only short to moderate recovery, is important.

Sprint training
England rugby team repeated sprint training

Typically this should be kept as game specific as possible, across distances of between 5 and 70 m, with rest periods of 3 to 4 times the duration of the effort.

The number of repetitions depends on the duration of the effort, such that if we are focused on training or improving speed off the mark (e.g., maximal acceleration) in a manner similar to a defensive line coming forward quickly (e.g., line speed), then we may have blocks of 6 to 10 efforts of 10 m with 15 to 20 s rest periods. Completing 3 to 6 blocks of this exercise can occur depending on what else needs to be included in the day’s training. For example, this acceleration focus may then lead on to an attacking focus in which we are now interested in working on 30 to 40 m efforts. An example could be, the wing or fullback has a ball in hand, and is running fast but at the same time trying to beat a defender (1 versus 1). This exercise might involve 5 to 8 repetitions on attack and defense to ensure adequate rest between attacking efforts.

In addition to RST on-feet, high level coaches also use metabolic training with similar work: rest intervals and intensities, but in off-feet type situations, e.g., using a rowing or bike ergometer. In this way cardiovascular and metabolic stress can be added without neuromuscular and locomotor stress, thus helping reduce the likelihood of injury.

In the book Science and Application of High-Intensity Interval Training these examples are related to the HIIT weapons they associate with rugby training.

Rugby HIIT Training Weapon 4: Sprint Interval Training

As Rugby Union players, it is important to be able to run fast. Line breaks and speed are one physical attribute that has been correlated with scoring tries; so it does appear that speed is king.

To develop speed and sprint ability, it is common for us to use sprint interval training to high intensity ttraining. with all-out sprints over 20 to 150 m (up to 30 s) at maximal effort and velocity, with long rests to ensure sufficient recovery and quality repeats (3 to 4 min; 1:8 work:rest).

Depending on the positional group, the tight forwards are likely to not complete efforts longer than 20 m, but the distances increase for the loose forwards, inside backs and outside backs.

Game-based HIIT and short intervals for Rugby Training

We have discussed three of the five weapons in this article. In Science and Application of High-Intensity Interval Training game-based HIIT and short intervals (weapons 1 and 5) are discussed as well as the other weapons in much further detail. Explaining how they are incorporated into a training schedule throughout the season.

Monitoring, Periodising and Structure

GPS to monitor rugby training
Elite level clubs and international teams now use wearable tracking technology such as GPS to monitor players movement and intensity during games and in training, as shown here.

In the book Science and Application of High-Intensity Interval Training the authors go on to explain the importance of monitoring tools for rugby training HIIT. That section is followed by stratagies for structuring the training programme using HIIT.


There are numerous ways to incorporate HIIT sequences into rugby training and preparation weeks. Whether they occur within a technical or tactical session, at the end of a field-based session, or as a stand-alone session. Similarly, off-feet HIIT sessions before, during, or after strength and power work is common practice.

The important consideration is whether individuals or the team require the stimulus and selection of the right weapon to address each player’s moving target. This consideration ensures that the delivery of specific HIIT weapons is based on who needs what and when. For more useful insight and information you can buy Science and Application of High-Intensity Interval Training now for only £62.99.

Science and Application of High-Intensity Interval

Science and Application of High-Intensity Interval Training

As well as rugby training HIIT, the 664 page book also has sport specific applications for:

  • Combat Sports
  • Cross-Country Skiing
  • Middle Distance Running
  • Road Running
  • Cycling
  • Rowing
  • Swimming
  • Tennis
  • Triathlon
  • American Football
  • Australian Football
  • Baseball
  • Basketball
  • Cricket
  • Field Hockey
  • Ice Hockey
  • Handball
  • Rugby Sevens
  • Soccer

The sport specific applications follow the first part of the book which is made up of:

  • Understanding High-Intensity Interval Training
  • Genesis and Evolution of High-Intensity Interval Training
  • Traditional Methods of HIIT Programming
  • Physiological targets of HIIT
  • Manipulating HIIT Variables
  • Using HIIT Weapons
  • Incorporating HIIT into Concurrent Training Program
  • HIIT and its Influence on Stress, Fatigue and Athlete Health
  • Quantifying Training Load
  • Response to Load
  • Putting It All Together


All references below are taken from Science and Application of High-Intensity Interval Training for this article on Rugby Training HIIT.

1. Austin D, Gabbett T, and Jenkins D. The physical demands of Super 14 Rugby Union. J Sci Med Sport 14: 259-263, 2011.

2. Bishop D, Girard O, and Mendez-Villanueva A. Repeated-sprint ability – Part II: Recommendations for training. Sports Med 41: 741-756, 2011

5. Cunningham DJ, Shearer DA, Drawer S, Pollard B, Eager R, Taylor N, Cook CJ, and Kilduff LP. Movement demands of elite under-20s and senior international Rugby Union players. PLoS One 11: e0164990, 2016

7. Duthie G, Pyne D, and Hooper S. Time motion analysis of 2001 and 2002 Super 12 rugby. J Sports Sci 23: 523-530, 2005.

8. Duthie G, Pyne D, and Hooper SL. Applied physiology and game analysis of Rugby Union. Sports Med 2003;33(13):973-91

10. Eaves SJ, Hughes MD, and Lamb KL. The consequences of the introduction of professional playing status on game action variables in international Northern Hemisphere Rugby Union football. International Journal of Performance Analysis in Sport 5: 58-86, 2005.

11. Fuller CW, Brooks JH, Cancea RJ, Hall J, and Kemp SP. Contact events in rugby union and their propensity to cause injury. Br J Sports Med 41: 862-867, 2007.

13. Hogarth LW, Burkett BJ, and McKean MR. Match demands of professional rugby football codes: A review from 2008 to 2015. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching 11: 451-463, 2016.

15.  Jones MR, West DJ, Crewther BT, Cook CJ, and Kilduff LP. Quantifying positional and temporal movement patterns in professional rugby union using global positioning system. European Journal of Sport Science 15: 488-496, 2015.

19. Quarrie K, Handcock P, Waller AE, Chalmers DJ, Toomey MJ, and Wilson BD. The New Zealand rugby injury and performance project. III. Anthropometric and physical performance characteristics of players. Br J Sports Med 29: 263-270, 1995.

20. Quarrie KL and Hopkins WG. Changes in player characteristics and match activities in Bledisloe Cup rugby union from 1972 to 2004. J Sports Sci 25: 895-903, 2007.

21. Quarrie KL, Hopkins WG, Anthony MJ, and Gill ND. Positional demands of international rugby union: evaluation of player actions and movements. J Sci Med Sport 16: 353-359, 2013.

28. Twist C and Worsfold P. The Science of Rugby. London, U.K.: Taylor & Francis, 2015.

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Hi, I'm Ryan, one of the bloggers here at Human Kinetics Europe Ltd. (If you want my official title, it's Marketing Executive.) I've always had a passion for health and fitness, having previously worked in gyms and played a variety of sports all my life. Now (as a somewhat of a washed-up athlete) I find myself working at the world’s biggest independent publisher of sport, health, dance and fitness resources. Which is amazing! Why? Because I get unrestricted access to all the best, most interesting, scientifically-proven writing on sports science. And what's more, I get to share it all with you!