Characteristics of the Sport
Rugby league is a game of strength, skill and speed, dominated by short bursts of high intensity exercise (e.g. sprinting, tackling), interspersed with longer periods of low intensity activity (e.g. walking, jogging). The object of the game is to score tries by grounding the ball in the opponents' in-goal, or by kicking the ball over the opponents' cross-bar. Each team is allowed six tackles when carrying the ball. Teams consist of 13 players - 6 forwards and 7 backs. Teams at the professional level are allowed a maximum of 12 interchange movements per match. Games consist of 40 minute halves with a 10 minute break at half time.
The rugby league season is divided into three phases - pre-season, competition and off-season. At the professional level, the off-season is usually a short break of 1-2 months where no formal training is scheduled, though some players may continue to do their own conditioning work during this period. Pre-season generally begins late November - early December and is seen as an opportunity to develop the physical traits and fitness characteristics needed to meet the demands of match play. Though it will vary depending on the players’ position and role in the team, it will typically involve gym work to develop strength and power, as well as interval, speed and aerobic conditioning training, which may be incorporated into game-based drills. As the season approaches, there is an increased focus on developing and refining game-based skills, with teams also engaged in a series of pre-season matches. The competitive season runs from March to September. During this period, teams will train 4-5 times per week, with the focus on maintenance of skill, conditioning and strength, as well as specific sessions dedicated to recovery/injury re-habilitation.
The National Rugby League (NRL) competition is played as a weekly competition, with games played as either day or night fixtures. In addition, selected players compete in the State of Origin series, a City versus Country match, as well as International matches.
Rugby league involves short bursts of play rather than continuous activity. Studies have shown that the majority of match time is spent in low intensity activity (e.g. walking, jogging), interspersed high intensity bursts (e.g. sprinting, tackling), with sprints rarely longer than 40 metres. Players can cover up to 8-10 km in a single game, with backs usually covering more ground than the forwards. A limited number of studies of semi professional and junior elite rugby players have shown player’ average heart rates to be ~80% of maximum for the duration of the match.
The game is also characterised by heavy body contact and tackling, with bruising and musculoskeletal injuries common. This combined with the frequent high intensity efforts during matches would suggest those players involved for the whole 80 minutes are putting significant strain on their muscle fuel (glycogen) reserves.
Muscle bulk and strength are important traits for rugby league players. Mean body mass of players have been reported to range from 86-90 kg, with the majority of studies showing forwards to be heavier and to have higher skinfold measurements than backs. These differences reflect the different roles within the team, with forwards being involved in a higher number of physical collisions and tackles, with backs spending more time running and carrying the ball.
Common Nutrition Issues
Meeting carbohydrate requirements
Little research has been done into the specific carbohydrate requirements of rugby league players. That said, though not as aerobically demanding as other football codes, players still need to ensure adequate intake of carbohydrate for the aerobic and anaerobic production of fuel to optimize training performance and to promote recovery. An intake target of 5-7 g of carbohydrate per kg of body mass should meet the requirements of most players. That said, it’s important that players learn to adjust their intake of carbohydrate based on their daily training schedule i.e. more on heavy loading days, less on easy/days. A useful strategy is to achieve this is to establish basic meal plan based on nutrient dense carbohydrate rich choices, that meets their requirements on easy/rest days, then orientate additional carbohydrate rich choices around training session e.g. sports drink during, recovery snack immediately post.
Gaining Muscle Mass
Gains in lean muscle mass are a priority for many of the players in the AIS program. To ensure an adequate energy intake support their hypertrophy goals, players are encouraged to consume six meals a day, with a focus on nutrient dense carbohydrate rich foods that are also low in fat and provide a good source of protein. In addition, players are encouraged to support strength training sessions by having a carbohydrate and protein rich snack soon after finishing e.g. yoghurt, low fat flavoured milk. Players can also promote better maintenance of lean muscle tissue through intake of carbohydrate during prolonged team training sessions. This will also promote superior performance through provision of fuel for the muscles and central nervous system.
While few studies have looked at the effects of creatine supplementation on rugby performance, the nature of the game, i.e. a series of high intensity efforts with variable recovery periods, would suggest that it may be of benefit. Further, use during a resistance training block, where athletes are trying to increase size/strength, may also be warranted. That said, especially with younger athletes, it’s important to recognise that more significant gains can be made through a well structured training and eating plan that promotes sufficient energy intake, while meeting other sports nutrition goals e.g. re-fuelling
Meeting fuel requirements
On the day before matches, the player’s normal training diet, combined with rest or light training, should be enough to ensure adequate fuel stores for the game. On match day, players should stick to their normal meal routine, ensuring carbohydrate rich foods are the focus of each meal or snack, aiming to finish all solid food options 2-3 hours before the start of the match. Though there have been few studies into carbohydrate supplementation during league matches, research from other sports suggest that those players involved for all or at least the majority of the game may benefit from source of carbohydrate during the game e.g. sports drink, gels. Players are encouraged to trial any options during hard training sessions to assess tolerance.
Players should aim to start their matches well hydrated. The day before and on match day, having fluids with all main meals, and having access to fluids in between meals, serves as a useful strategy to help ensure this goal is met. In addition, if they are likely to be playing in warm conditions, the addition of sodium to the ingested fluids may be warranted. During matches, players should look for opportunities to consume fluids at regular intervals to minimise the fluid deficit incurred e.g. try conversions, half time. While water is a suitable option, sports drinks afford players the opportunity to contribute towards their fuel and fluid needs simultaneously.
Players engaged for the full 80 minutes in a game will put a significant drain on their muscle carbohydrate (glycogen) stores, as well as incur significant muscle damage, secondary to physical load and heavy contact incurred. To promote rapid recovery of fuel stores, as well as muscle growth and repair, players are encouraged to consume a carbohydrate and protein rich snack soon after the match. Dairy based options e.g. low fat flavoured milk, liquid meal supplements, provide a good combination of these macronutrients and tend to be popular with players. They carry the additional benefit of contributing to the players re-hydration needs simultaneously.
As with other team sports, a culture of consuming alcohol after games still persists in rugby league, which will hinder the recovery process in a number of ways. It will impair glycogen re-synthesis, prolong the extent of any soft-tissue injures or bruising and as it acts as a diuretic, it will slow down the process of rehydration. Further, players are less likely to adhere to optimal recovery nutrition practices when they are drinking alcohol.
This fact sheet is based on AIS / National team athletes and is therefore specific to these athletes. Written by AIS Sports Nutrition, last updated August 2009. © Australian Sports Commission.