Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a huge topic amongst Strength Coaches to track training status, recovery, and/or readiness of their athletes. I’m not here to debate the validity of HRV, its potential usefulness, or any of the piles of research collected on the topic but merely offer my viewpoint. If you have no idea what HRV is then this may not be the blog post for you because i am not going to give you a historical background citing research from the world of physiology. Google it! Then again if you need to google it, don’t bother reading this post because it will not mean much to you.
HRV can be an amazing tool for Strength coaches and Sports Scientists to collect data on training status from day to day. It seems as though changing your daily plan may be a little extreme but I do know of coaches that use HRV in just that matter while other Strength Coaches use it to track changes over the course of a training block or competitive season which makes more sense to me rather than chasing a daily number.
Here is my fear and the limitation of HRV in my environment…
For HRV to be reliable it needs to be performed at the same time each day. In the NBA we rarely work at the same time of day. Take this week for example…
Monday – off day: half of the team comes in for voluntary extra workouts around 11am
Tuesday – home game day: everybody must be ready for shoot around at 9:45am so players start coming in at 7:45 depending on their treatment schedule. Afternoon off before 7pm game time, fly to Charlotte following the game.
Wednesday – noon breakfast meeting before 7pm game, fly to Houston following the game (change time zones)
Thursday – off day/voluntary workouts begin at noon
Friday – shoot around at 11am with treatments beginning around 9am. Afternoon off before at 830pm game, fly to Dallas following the game.
Saturday – practice at 2pm
Sunday – 11am shoot around, afternoon off before a 7:30pm game, fly back to Indianapolis (time zone change).
As you can see it would be very difficult to have any sort of consistency in testing HRV. Even the most dedicated professional would have difficulty waking up to keep a consistent 8am (just a time example) HRV check considering that often times we get into a new city around 2am when flying after a game. This irregularity in timing can have a significant impact on your HRV number rendering it near useless. I will say that the company Proteus is collecting some interesting information with their wearable technology that makes capturing HRV a whole lot simpler by wearing what amounts to a band aid on your body for 36-72 hours (depending on how sticky your skin remains).
Another drawback of HRV is the “bad days.” If we convince a player that HRV is important, what happens when it is a game day and the number tells us that the player is not ready to perform at a high level. The psychological ramifications are huge and for those of you that think that you can just track the information without sharing the data with your athlete, you are wrong. Any player that is willing to be monitored is going to want to know the results! If they dont feel like they are an active participant in the process chances are they will not want to participate. So on that “bad day” i tell the athlete that they must foam roll, nap, hydrate, massage, etc…how is that any different than how they should already be preparing?! The recovery message is the same everyday or at least it should be. I’m not going to even address those of you that think that the player should get less minutes because you are insane to even think it! And finally, what happens if that player goes out and has a great game? Don’t bother asking him to sit still the next morning and ask him to do an HRV analysis because you already lost him the night before.
When an athlete competes once a week with an unchanging schedule during their practice week i think HRV can be a valuable tool but if your schedule is like the NBA, MLB or NHL then i dont think it is a sound investment of your time unless you love collecting useless data. Just my two cents.
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Rugby Union is a high contact, dynamic sport in which athletes require a combination of strength, power, speed, agility, endurance and sport-specific attributes (1). Rugby Union is one of the most popular team sports and is played all over the world. It became a professional sport in 1995. With more money at stake in the modern game, at elite level, a great deal of research has been carried out investigating improving the fitness of players in order to gain an advantage over the opposition.
A game of rugby consists of two halves of 40 minutes, with a maximum of 10 minutes break at half time. Two teams contest play, each with 15 players on the field at once, except when a player is dismissed for misconduct. Rugby Union players have a wide range of physical characteristics, which directs them to certain positions.
There are, generally, two positions; forwards and backs. Forwards are typically heavier, taller and have a greater proportion of body fat than backs (8). The forwards demonstrate superior absolute aerobic and anaerobic power and muscular strength (8). The total work over the duration of the game is less in the backs compared with the forwards and forwards spend greater time in physical contact, while the backs spend more time in free running, allowing them to cover greater distances. (17) showed that the average distances covered by elite level English players was 5408m and 5812m for the tight and loose forwards, whilst the inside backs covered 6055m and the outside backs 6190m respectively.
The players are numbered in terms of position, i.e. forward and backs and this depends on the physical characteristics. This assignment will look at an ‘outside back’ or in layman’s terms a winger. Wingers require considerable speed to out-manoeuver their opponents. They perform a large amount of support running, chasing down kicks and covering in defence (8).
Physical Requirements of Elite Level Rugby Union Players
As outlined, rugby is generally split into two positional areas; forwards and backs and they differ significantly in terms of physical characteristics. (15) shows that, in terms of anthropometric characteristics, forwards are generally taller, possess greater body mass, and are more endomorphic and less ectomorphic than backs. The backs tend to perform better on physical performance measures than forwards, being more aerobically fit, faster and more agile whilst possessing a higher degree of muscular endurance.
With regard to positional physiological demand, there are greater demands placed upon different positions when compared to others. According to (8), the front row has the greatest strength and power demands as it is their job to gain possession and they are continuously in contact with the opposition and have limited chance to run with the ball. Therefore, they are usually less mobile. The locks are generally tall, with a large body mass and power, they are known as the second row. The loose forwards require strength and power as their purpose is to gain and retain possession of the ball. It is a prerequisite of the loose forwards to be powerful and mobile in open play, have excellent speed, acceleration and endurance (8). The halfbacks usually need an excellent level of endurance as they receive the ball from the forwards and control possession. Speed is also an important factor for the halfbacks as they need to out manoeuvre the opposition and accelerate away from the approaching defenders. Furthermore, midfield backs require strength, speed and power as they have a high frequency of contact with the opposition. Outside backs require considerable speed to out manoeuvre their opponents. They perform a large amount of support running, chasing down kicks and covering in defence (8).
As stated, physiological demands vary with positional demands. However, it would be safe to assume that all players need a significant degree of strength, power, speed and endurance to compete at the highest level. High levels of strength and power appear to be important for successful participation in elite levels of rugby league (2). According to (19) strength can be defined as the ability to produce external force and has been previously shown to be crucial in rugby. As outlined earlier, all positions require an excellent amount of strength, particularly in the scrums. Studies have shown that the forwards need greater strength than the backs, while backs require a greater degree of speed (8). (16) showed that heavy body contact could result from one on one tackling, scrums (scrimmaging), rucks and mauls, as well as attacking runs. Therefore, power can be considered essential for all positions within the game of rugby union. Power is the product of force and velocity. Moreover, if strength is force, power can therefore be described as the ability to produce force at a high velocity. Power is considered a significant component as it is as it is required in rugby by the forwards to push the opposition back and by the backs to accelerate from the opposition. According to (19) power is the most important characteristic to develop for most sports. In its simplest form power is work. In most cases the athlete that gets the work done first wins (19). In addition, acceleration and speed are essential requirements, as players are often required to accelerate to make a position nearby or sprint over an extended distance (8). From the evidence shown, strength, power and speed are the main components required by rugby union players and therefore, it is most suitable to have a high strength/power training programme to develop this.
In rugby union, players accelerate over short distances or accelerate and sprint to make position (9). This form of sprinting is not usually performed in a straight line and can include ball carriage, change of direction and the avoidance of a tackle. As stated, rugby union backs have superior sprinting ability compared to forwards (8). In an elite rugby union match, backs have a greater amount of space to run into and therefore achieve greater speeds when compared to forwards. (7) found that outside backs engaged in more sprints than front row forwards and spent significantly more time sprinting and that maximal sprint time was also significantly longer. Furthermore, backs also spend two to three times more time in high-intensity running than forwards and may be required to perform up to 20 sprints in one match (7). Therefore, the ability to perform repeated bouts of maximal sprints may be beneficial in performance enhancement of the backs and repeated sprint sessions should be implemented. In addition, it has been suggested by (9) that forwards perform 41% of sprints from a standing start, while backs performed more from a striding start. This is of paramount importance when incorporating speed into a training programme, as previous research has shown that sport specific speed is based upon the positional demands of the sport. Therefore, it may be more beneficial for forwards to emphasise speed work from a standing start, while backs should focus on ‘flying starts’. Sprinting should be a greater focus for backs as they spend more time sprinting than forwards.
Periodised strength training as defined by (10) is varying the training programme at regular time intervals in an attempt to bring about optimal gains in strength, power, motor performance, and/or muscle hypertrophy.
According to the NSCA Position stand, resistance programs for athletic performance should be periodised in order to optimise the adaptations over long-term training and also help reduce the potential of the athlete entering the overtraining phase. It is well accepted that in order to maximize the benefits of resistance training, periodisation is superior to other training methods for the development of strength and power sports (10). It is shown that in order to have the maximal benefits of resistance training, periodisation is better that non-periodisation for the development of strength and power sports. In addition other studies such as (18) and (20) showed that utilising periodised training methods have also demonstrated superior results when compared to lower volume protocols. Furthermore (13) showed that short and long term adaptations in strength, power and muscle endurance are greater with a periodised multiple set training program.
To develop power, it is suggested that the following cycle may be beneficial.
Strength Endurance-Strength-Power and Speed.
The Strength endurance phase is where the sport specific fitness is developed. The primary goal of this stage is to increase lean body mass and endurance base. This phase focuses on high volume exercise, at a relatively reduced intensity as not to induce overtraining.
Hypertrophy is the term we use to define muscle enlargement or muscle growth and is critical in collision sports where high contact occurs. This enlargement is valuable to athletes involved in sports that require strength and power, such as rugby union (3).
As discussed, strength can be defined as the ability to produce external force (19). Strength development should be a critical component for any athlete committed to improving performance and, therefore, it is important to develop an excellent strength base before speed and power training commences. (4) suggested that maximal strength is achieved by 3-5 sets, 1-5 repetitions at 90-100% of 1RM with rests between 2-5 minutes. In addition, (5) suggests that maximal strength can be converted to power in a relatively short time.
Therefore, upon conclusion of the strength phase, training shifts to a power phase in order to prepare the athlete for competition as the strength base is already established. As previously stated, power is essential in rugby as it is essential to drive opponents back. Power development comprises producing a large force at a high rate of speed, and can be divided into two areas of movement. Firstly, speed strength is where importance is on speed of movement against a relatively small resistance. A key example of this is in plyometric training i.e. bounding or counter movement jumps (CMJ). Secondly, Olympic lifts such as the power clean are also primary exercises used in power development. The power clean is a dynamic lift designed to increase power production (11). This is typically a fundamental exercise in high performance strength and conditioning environment such as elite rugby. (12) states that Olympic lifts are the most commonly recommended exercises in power and speed programs. Furthermore, athletes trained in Olympic style lifting techniques have an extremely high capacity to develop power, which is necessary for success in sport. The power phase is, thus, designed to optimise the gains in strength the athlete has made during the maximal strength phase.
The importance of strength and power in high intensity collision sports such as rugby union is paramount for athletes performing at the elite level. Therefore, resistance training plays a fundamental role in athletic development and is necessary for the demands of the game. From the literature presented, elite rugby players encompass various exceptional fitness requirements. However it is evident that strength, speed and power are the main components in the game of rugby and a periodised training programme designed to enhance these components, significantly, will enable the athletes to have a greater chance of success in the major competitions. It is also essential that the training stimulus is positional specific and should be varied throughout the periodised programme to consistently improve adaptation and to induce significant gains in the physiological components that are required by elite rugby union players.
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David Meechan MRes PSG ASCC is currently a Strength & Conditioning Coach at the Hong Kong Sports Institute and was previously a Strength & Conditioning Coach at the Scottish Institute of Sport. He holds a Masters of Research in Exercise Science & is an accredited Strength & Conditioning Coach with the UKSCA and ASCA Pro structure. He can be contacted on email@example.com.