Conditioning the Lions - lessons from the 2013 tour
Conditioning the Lions - lessons from the 2013 tour
Elite rugby players don’t happen by accident. The British and Irish Lions are the best our shores have to offer, so how do you take the best and make them better?
Four years ago, the tourists claimed their first series victory in 16 years, blowing Australia away in a deciding third Test in Sydney to win the series 2-1. That didn’t happen by accident either. It was the culmination of months of meticulous planning, monitoring, testing and training. On that tour, Head of Physical Performance Adam Beard was the man tasked with getting the Lions in peak physical condition for the Test series.
In collaboration with his staff and head coach Warren Gatland, he planned when the Lions trained, how long for, when they recovered, what they ate and introduced various ways of monitoring the players. No stone was left unturned on the Lions’ quest for glory, so where do you even start when faced with such a task?
Know your players
“Prior to the 2013 tour, I travelled to all of the different nations and I had all of the clubs fill out all of the loads,” explains Beard. “These players are the top players of those clubs, so the clubs were very forthcoming - they told me the thresholds of the different players, which was really good. I got them to send me schedules, so I knew what schedules the players were used to. Warren mentioned to me that in 2009, the Irish struggled with the two-a-day sessions. Warren usually likes to do units in the morning and then rugby in the afternoon.
“So I had to have a look at how I could bridge that gap with those players. All the Irish provinces were really forthcoming with information.” Prior to getting on the plane to head south, there was nothing that Beard and his staff didn’t know about these players.
The Aussie fitness guru wanted to make the Lions environment as familiar as possible to the players and, in his own words, make sure ‘they could express themselves how they normally do’. For example, one player required a hockey ball and a pilates reformer to prepare for matches. So Beard made it his business to make sure that player had a pilates reformer wherever they were in Australia - no small job.
Preparation takes time
This year players involved in European and Aviva Premiership knockout matches will arrive at Lions camp late. Those involved in the Premiership finals won’t have a training session with the squad before they fly to New Zealand. Half the squad will meet for the first day of training at the Vale Resort just outside Cardiff but the Lions are behind the eight ball before they even leave these shores. “It’s a big, big challenge. It depends who they’re playing in those finals as well,” warns Beard. They could be playing against a team who don’t run the ball a lot, they kick and have a big forward pack - so there isn’t a lot of running around. To manufacture the running fitness of an Australia, and obviously New Zealand are pretty similar, then that’s going to be tough.”
Beard, who is now Director of High Performance at the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, encountered the same problem four years ago but he had a secret weapon that the 2017 Lions don’t have - the heat.
The Lions stopped off for a game against the Barbarians in Hong Kong in 2013 and Beard saw that as a big opportunity to get the players arriving late up to speed.
“I snapped up Hong Kong,” he says. “Everyone was talking about it being a money-maker but I knew that it was really going to help us a lot. Because in seven days, you can probably get three weeks’ worth of adaptation in the heat. We had two camps (Wales and Ireland), similar to what he’s doing this time around. The players who arrived first, played in that first game in Hong Kong. The players that came to camp second, we did recovery with them in Ireland and then I used Hong Kong as a heat camp for those players to catch up.
“We used very accelerated methods. We planned for utilizing Hong Kong as a heat camp and I thought we used that quite successfully. Looking at heart rate and GPS data, we got some very good physiological gains from that and then we amalgamated the squads in Australia. So, you’ve got the first group of players well on their way to where you want them to be physically, having been through camps in Wales and Ireland, as well as a few days in Hong Kong. You’ve got the late arrivals up to speed and, now that you’re actually on tour, all the hard work is done on the fitness side of things, right? Wrong.
Peak when it matters
“If you just sit on your hands and think that you’re going to maintain throughout the tour, then you’re going to struggle,” he says. Getting the smallest dose-response is going to make the biggest difference. The somewhat boring key to the success? Running. “If you can get huge men to move at a pace and direction that is going to cause your opponents serious problems - but only if you can last the full 80 minutes. So we would do a lot of short sharp running exercises to imitate game intensity”.
Analysing the Australians closely - going as detailed as knowing how far, on average, they run per minute during their games - allowed Beard and his team to know what level they needed to reach to be competitive. They formulated training methods to recreate the required intensity in training but had to do it in such a way that allowed the players to get adequate recovery or risk overloading the them, burning them out. You’ll ensure that you’re hitting certain intensities and I don’t think it’s any different from Australia to New Zealand because they both play very quickly. I evaluated Australia in terms of them playing with quicker ball, their movement, their metres per minute.
But, because of the scheduling, what the 2017 Lions don’t have is two weeks with the late arrivals and he doesn’t have the heat of Hong Kong and all the benefits that brought four years ago.This year’s conditioning team will have all their plans in place by now and know how they going to tackle this almighty challenge. And rest assured, it is an almighty challenge because the teams in New Zealand will play at a speed and intensity that is rarely seen on these shores.