“The Fittest Sport” series is sponsored by Mongoose Sports & Entertainment
It’s an age-old source of debate among athletes, pundits and fans alike. But, after much research, we at Pledge Sports are providing a definitive answer to a near-impossible question: “What is the fittest sport?”
The Fittest Sport
It’s important to note, by “the fittest sport” we aren’t referring solely to an athlete’s level of general fitness, but rather the all-aound ability, fitness and skill their sport requires.
For example, a marathon runner runs 26 miles per event, but a soccer player averages 7 miles per game – including sprints, constant change of direction, tactical awareness, physically battling opposition players, dribbling and kicking a ball. The comparison of skill sets is an unfair contest.
In our seven-part series of The Fittest Sport, we take each individual sport and provide in-depth analysis into what makes particular athletes fitter than the rest. We’ve analysed:
Fitness in rugby has increased drastically over the past fifty years. Gone are the days of lighter backs, and overweight front rows.
Nowadays, your typical elite rugby player will be lean, muscular and exceptionally fit, regardless of their position on the teamsheet.
According to a study by Health24, elite rugby players have increased in mass by over 10kg in the past half-century. This is a direct result of newer generations of rugby players all working towards the synchronisation of two main physical aspects – strength and power.
Beyond that, the game itself requires an extremely high level of talent and skill, and is possible the most physically demanding sport out there.
For 80 minutes each player must be mentally switched on and tactically aware, they must have perfect hand-eye coordination in order to give and receive passes at high speed, they must be intelligent and decisive in their movements, and they must endure opposing athletes of similar stature tackling and fighting for every ball over the course of the game.
A top level player now requires brute power, speed, intelligence, skill and toughness alongside serious endurance.
Matt Middleton, strength and conditioning guru and former coach at Bath Rugby, said: “Players work on maximum strength, power, size, speed, robustness, agility, anaerobic and aerobic endurance.”
Different positions require a degree of emphasis when it comes to gym work, but all players require explosive power and speed if they are to contend at the game’s highest level.
Nowadays, there is no use being a scrummaging behemoth if you’re as slow as wind-erosion. Modern rugby is the era of dynamic all-rounders.
“Players do a mixture of short sprint work as well as speed endurance through repeated intervals with short rest.
“The quickest players can run 10m in 1.6s and 30m in 3.9s. This is rapid. For perspective, Usain Bolt ran the first 10m in 1.89s, during his 9.58s 100m time. At 30m, he clocked 3.78s,” according to Middleton.
This explosiveness is driven by peak fitness. The gold standard in measuring the fitness of athletes is through measuring their maximal oxygen intake (VO2 Max).
According to the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU), the average fit male adult will have a VO2 Max of roughly 40-45 ml/kg/min.
For top level rugby players, you can expect a VO2 Max of anything between 60 – 70 ml/kg/min, which when compared to other athlete’s at the top of their sport is similar to an elite long-distance runner.
But, if the VO2 max of a rugby player and a long-distance runner are the same, why is only one of them on our list?
It’s simple really. While long-distance runners are theoretically very fit, the challenges of their sport do not go far beyond running in a moderately straight line.
Yet, in rugby, the fitness of a long-distance runner is necessary because while they are not covering 26 miles, they are engaging in bursts of pace, quick change of direction and very consistent tackles carrying and average impact of 25G in force.
That’s according to a study by Doug King, specialist nurse in Wellington, New Zealand. In 2013, he analysed players of the Hutt Old Boys Marist rugby club in Wellington.
If you’re looking for context, your average rollercoaster has about 3-4G of force, while a barrel roll in an Air Force One fighter jet is 9G. The force is strong with rugby.
What The Experts Say
During his career, Gordon D’Arcy made up one of the most formidable partnerships in world rugby alongside Brian O’Driscoll. The pair featured together 55 times for Ireland, and many times more for Leinster.
D’Arcy was a key member of one of the most successful Leinster and Irish teams ever, winning three Heineken Cups, four leagues and a Challenge Cup with his province, as well as lifting two Six Nations trophies (including the 2009 Grand Slam) with his country and travelling on two Lions tours.
D’Arcy’s knowledge of rugby and understanding of the physical demands of the modern game is second to none.
“For me rugby players are the fittest athletes, blending different disciplines together like power, endurance, tactical nuance, skill and mental resilience. With the ball in play for longer periods of play, crossing between anaerobic and aerobic expenditure and then throwing in physical contact to sap that last bit of energy available.
“When players get to this unique lactic acid & collision driven environment, then they are expected to make strong decisions to influence the outcome of the game. Whoever blinks first loses,” said D’Arcy.
We find it difficult to disagree, do you?
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