Squatting cows and pushing cars: how rugby players are keeping fit

With players unable to train together in a gym as normal, clubs have been forced to led them equipment such as exercise bikes. Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images

With rugby facing an indefinite hiatus due to the coronavirus, professional players are keeping fit from their homes and trying not to lapse into off-season mode.

In England, the Gallagher Premiership is postponed until the weekend of April 24-26. As rugby waits for that deadline to likely shift further into the summer, players and staff alike face the fiendish task of keeping squads match-ready, but also remain wary of finding the right balance. They don't want their players over doing it, nor do they want them slipping into bad habits and losing fitness.

It's a challenge new to rugby. Players are taking professional training plans and adapting them to the equipment they have access to. Bristol Bears' flanker Daniel Thomas is keeping fit by squatting cows on his family farm while Nathan Hughes is keeping attune to his No.8 duties by pushing his car. All the while the team's strength and conditioning staff are keeping an eye on them from a distance, monitoring their GPS figures and checking in on them.

Here's how rugby is staying match-ready while social distancing.

Dave Attwood

Bristol Bears, second-row

"We were all being sent home with gym equipment. The gym at Clifton has been ransacked. Everybody has a dumbbell in their living room with a watt bike in the garden.

"We obviously can't train as a group so every day we're filling out questionnaires with symptoms and then the club updates as to what category of person we are and that dictates who we can train with. We downloaded video conferencing software so we can do team meetings and we're put in a different group every week where we FaceTime different people from the squad, and we do quizzes. A club will put something on for us to participate in as a big group.

"We'll try to produce bits of social media and try to keep busy and try and keep spirits up and try and do what we can from a socially conscious perspective. So, if people are fit, we'll get out in the community and help the club try to support that.

"It's no secret the amount of mental distress rugby players go through when they're forced into retirement and this is essentially like that. You'll go from a situation where you train every day, you get the endorphin rush, you've got some degree of financial stability, but your routine is absolutely shattered.

"There's a kind of dichotomy between where rugby players will focus on rugby and what's important in rugby and if rugby is going to break down. And then suddenly you have a conversation about people losing their jobs, and they can't pay their mortgage, and they can't get groceries and someone you love is ill and everything becomes really real. But that also doesn't mean you can ignore the stuff that isn't like life and death.

"We've got a routine. Ten o'clock in the morning is gym time, and then 11 o'clock there's some social interaction. The staff will pose challenges so it's a bit like a normal gym where there's a leader board for who's done this today or who has burnt 70 calories today.

With extremely limited gym equipment, there aren't going to be many people who are able to increase muscle bulk and a lot of people will struggle to maintain muscle, but a lot of people will be very, very capable of putting weight on. It's about trying to keep tabs on that because we don't know how long this will last."

Tom Bullough

Northampton Saints, Head of Strength and Conditioning

"Writing the programmes for the players isn't hard, but having no gyms available to anyone is challenging. We made all different packs for different people; some people requested dumbbells or kettlebells and we just got together as much usable stuff as we could and the lads all came and collected it.

"Each player has specific strength and conditioning coaches. So someone like Courtney Lawes will need a different programme to Dan Biggar. They won't actually lose the strength that quickly without normal training, but they might lose some size and mass. They can actually maintain that with a pretty small package of kit and some clever programming from the lads to keep that weight on and then obviously make sure that nutrition is right.

"The questions will happen when it gets extended out for longer than three or four weeks and it becomes an issue because they won't be physically prepared to play rugby. Then that has its own risk with injury risks.

"The challenge we've got is keeping everyone on the same page, as there's not much to do when you're social distancing. We set challenges -- like Sam Vesty, the attack coach, sets certain skills and then we'll do press-up challenges or something like that. I think we'll set the press up challenge for tomorrow and get the boys sending videos and you know, just try and keep it fun and we'll just have to keep mixing.

"We try to educate them, we don't just dictate to them and run as a club, which hopefully they understand. And that's one of our goals is to try and make them understand why we're doing stuff.

"I think that the clubs that manage to keep the lads engaged over this period of time will probably fare the best."

Kevin Geary

Bristol Bears, Head of Strength and Conditioning

"We're on our phones 24/7. I had about 2,000 messages on Tuesday.

"We want the players to be okay, so they check in with the medical team to ensure they're symptom free and that everyone in their home is healthy as well. They do that seven days a week.

"Myself and the head of medical, we categorised the players. So you have players who are completely healthy and who maybe live by themselves and the players who are healthy and live with others. Then you have players who have been symptomatic of some sort and have been cleared. They're in a different group again, and then you have a group who have maybe picked up something like a cough or a cold. We're not sure what that might be.

Maintaining power work, for example, is a challenge as you're going to lose pretty much straight away if you don't get that stimulus every seven to 10 days. So we're running three days a week all on a scheduled time and then they'll lift weights immediately afterwards with their allocated gym equipment. We also look to rugby conditioning work on a Friday at the moment which focuses on getting up and down off the ground because there's an absence of collisions.

"When the social distancing was brought in, it was a race against time to get supplies. For example, all the players had to be given their GPS units and we needed a company to ship us 50 cables so the players could charge their units. With the guys using Wattbikes, we run everything via the app. The players have their own individual profiles, and they just send the session direct to us, and we look at their metres and calorie cost there.

"One of the big things that obviously gets driven by Pat Lam is keeping each other right as best we can. We have team manager Nick Fenton Wells looking into continuing professional development opportunities for guys."