11 Things We Learned Training With The All-Conquering England Rugby Team
We took a mauling to bring you Grand Slam strength and muscle tips
If England coach Eddie Jones could bottle the formula that has transformed his players from World Cup flops into all-conquering world beaters, we’d all want a sip.
Since the Australian coach took the reigns of England Rugby’s dilapidated chariot at the end of a disastrous 2015, the team’s fortunes have followed a remarkable upward trajectory.
"If you can improve today you’ll want to train harder. If you train harder you’ll become a better player."
In walloping a promising Scotland team 61-21 last week they wrapped up the Six Nations with a match to spare and equalled the All Blacks’ record of 18 consecutive wins.
Now, only victory away to Ireland on Saturday stands between them, the outright record and becoming the first team to win back-to-back Grand Slams in the Six Nations era (England won the last double Grand Slam in the Five Nations in 1992).
So, how has Jones orchestrated this stunning turnaround and what could we all learn from them?
We were given a taste of this winning formula, as England’s kit partners Canterbury invited us to train with the players and coaches at their luxury Pennyhill Park base. Here’s what we found out.
1. Always train with a purpose
The first thing Jones tells us in our pre-session team talk is that every session and drill the players do is motivated by the single-minded goal to improve. They never just go through the motions. “The whole purpose of training is to get better,” he says. “If you can improve today you’ll want to train harder. If you train harder you’ll become a better player. It’s pretty simple. The harder you work and the smarter you work the better you become and the more enjoyable it is.”
According to the defence coach Paul Gustard, the team’s young playmakers George Ford and Owen Farrell are masters of this. They are relentlessly driving themselves to improve and dragging the rest of the squad with them. You can follow their lead by targeting one thing to improve on every session, so you always have a clear reason and pay-off for stepping into the gym or onto the training pitch.
2. Train smarter, not just harder
England No10 Ford admits the team’s fitness has transformed unrecognisably since the World Cup. "We used to run to get better at running, now everything is specific to rugby fitness,” says Ford, who had the clear mind and reserves of energy needed to create the late match-winning score against Wales this championship. Now the team will train on average 220 minutes per week, tapering down so they're fresh for the weekend and ensuring enough rest days for full recovery. They’ll do intense double sessions of 60 minutes on Monday, 30 minutes on Tuesday and 20 minutes on Thursday. That’s all.
3. Prioritise building functional muscle, not mirror muscles
Two things strike us when we step into England’s bespoke gym. First, their dumbbells max out at a monstrous 75kg. Second, and most unusually of all, there are no mirrors anywhere. When it comes to strength and conditioning, free weights take centre stage. There are dozens of pairs of Olympic lifting shoes, initialed for each player, squat racks as far as the eye can see, power bands, med balls, kettlebells, a short speed gate sprint track, and even beer kegs for strongman lifts to challenge grip, stability and develop functional strength for sport. There is a small space reserved for resistance machines, but these are for the compound exercise variety, not for isolation moves. Each player is on a tailored training plan to get the best out of physical attributes.
4. Training shouldn't be easy
England’s training sessions are brutal, intentionally tougher than what they’d ever experience on match day. Jones has developed this from a method called "tactical periodisation" that involves bringing in key pillars of a game into every training session at above match intensity. Borrowed from Jose Mourinho, who picked the theory up from Spanish exercise physiologist Alberto Mendez-Villanueva, it means one day they'll do a session with more contact than they would typically experience in a game. The next day they train at least 60% of the session above game speed. "We don't do any extra fitness," says Jones. "It's all done within those training sessions and because of that our fitness has improved enormously.”
5. But it should be enjoyable
A relaxed environment encourages expression. That seems to be the ethos Jones has built in the England camp. He interacts on a level with all the players, creating an egalitarian environment rather than the authoritarian one they experienced in the build-up to the World Cup and under previous regimes. As a case in point, we play a fun game of British Bulldog to warm up for our first training session and later, flanker James Haskell reveals that the players and coach were playing Cards Against Humanity when a filming crew came in and they quickly had to stop Jones mid-obscenity. These kinds of games and examples of an atmosphere where players and coaches are equal has allowed the team to express themselves. The takeaway for you? If you’re in a sports club or training group with a dictator running the show, perhaps it’s time to find a new one where the shackles aren’t so tight.
6. Take ownership of your nutrition
On the morning of a match the players are treated to a buffet fit for a king – or at least they have access to one. On the lunchtime menu: grilled sea bass with spiced couscous, breaded turkey with lemon and parmesan, duck confit, pesto pasta, tuna nicoise salad, hard boiled eggs, tomato, mozzarella, avocado, sticky BBQ ribs, all the sauces, all the veg. Self restraint is required. The players are looked after, but they also have to look after themselves. Learn what food works for you and how to be disciplined.
7. Fast-release carbs have their place
Mid-session fuel is provided by fast-release carbs and sugar: bananas, Jaffa Cakes and Soreen Original Malt Loafs are all laid out in the dressing room for emergency glycogen replacement when energy is waning during the most intense sessions.
8. On rest days you should rest completely
During the day it’s clear some of the players are walking wounded following the Scotland test at Twickenham. Captain and hooker Dylan Hartley can barely raise his arms so can’t throw in for our lineout drill and is on the physio’s orders to sit down at every opportunity to take the weight off his legs and give him every chance of recovering in time for the next match. It shows the importance of rest and recovery. After bouts of intense activity, such as the day after a long-distance race, guarantee yourself a quiet day to repair and rebuild.
9. Set targets to keep you focused
Goal setting and targets make pain in training worthwhile. The long-term goal for England is becoming the No1 team in the world. It's all you ever hear them talking about. But that primary goal has narrowed their focus and forced them to strive for improvements every session. The same should be applied to your workouts. Set a tangible goal and work towards it everyday so your motivation never falters.
10. Constantly review your progress
Forwards coach Steve Borthwick reveals that the indoor and outdoor pitches are surrounded by cameras to capture every move the players make. These images are then played back on delay so the coaches can give them instant feedback. It underlines the importance of reviewing your sessions to help you identify what you need to improve. Your session doesn’t finish with the last rep. If you want to improve, you should learn from what went right and what went wrong and take it forwards into your next workout.
11. Be ready for anything
Players are trained to problem solve. In every drill the coaches will throw in a curveball – sometimes literally, swapping the rugby balls for footballs or even an odd shaped "half ball" that looks like a rugby ball cut in two – or a new rule that the other team has to work out in order to win. Jones is constantly challenging his players to learn on the hoof and adapt quickly and so should you. If you’ve got a sportive coming up, don’t just wait for the perfect conditions to go for a practice ride. Get used to training in all elements so you’re ready for anything come race day.
First published on 17 March 2017 by Men's Health.
Push your limits and get rugby fit with Canterbury at Canterbury.com/traininghub