Given that many club rugby teams in Hong Kong now (and possibly many teams around the world) are starting to return to training, I put together some of my thoughts and experiences around putting together a training week. While there may be big differences in the demands between professional and amateur teams, many principles remain.
A training plan is required to achieve a goal. That training plan can be divided up into cycles: macro- (months to years), meso- (weeks to months), and micro- (days to weeks). The length of each is largely dependent on the context of the environment and the overall objective.
This post will discuss microcycle periodisation, in particular game week planning, and the variation that can occur in it. It will not dive into the foundational building blocks of a training program i.e. individual training sessions. Essentially, if your individual training sessions are not chasing the desired goal of your larger cycles, it will be very difficult to achieve your cycle goals.
Periodisation is a fascinating topic, and John Kiely (2012) wrote a thought provoking piece on periodisation and questioned applying simple mechanistic models to biological adaptation, and challenged the application of generic methodologies. This is a very important point, and it it critical to invest time in the monitoring of the status of athletes, to ensure they are in a position to chase the desired adaptation on any given day, and that the training program that has been implemented is having the effect it was designed to have.
When planning, I would suggest starting with your long-term goal (macrocycle) and this can inform a number of building blocks or mesocycles that support the macrocycle goal. Within the mesocycle, there will be a number of building blocks or microcyles, and the goal of each microcycle will determine the objective and content of each training session.
Weekly microcycles from a variety of sports - AFL, Rugby Union, Rugby League, Football (Soccer).
Typical microcycles in team sports are implemented from game to game, meaning there could be as little as 5 and as many as 9 days in between matches. Professional soccer teams could play 3 games in as little as 7 days, and it is common for Premier League teams to play 4 times in 8 days over the Christmas period. While many clubs would have a squad depth to ensure that not all players are playing every minute within that short space of time, it could be a possibility (due to injuries to other squad members, suspensions) that outfield players have to play every minute during that congested period. This presents a unique challenge that is not at all common in Rugby Union, Rugby League or AFL.
Using the game to game method of planning, professional organisations and practitioners would often use the game day +/- model, which will dictate the function of a given day. This is highlighted in the image above, but to take an example of a Saturday game week followed by a Saturday game week (7-day turnaround), using the game day +/- model, the week would look like:
Saturday: Game Day (GD)
Sunday: GD +1 / -6
Monday: GD +2 / -5
Tuesday: GD +3 / -4
Wednesday: GD +4 / -3
Thursday: GD +5 / -2
Friday: GD +6 / -1
This could easily be adapted to games with a 5-day, 6-day, 8-day or a 9-day (if the team is lucky) turnaround. Generally, teams would keep a reasonably consistent schedule game-to-game, for example in Rugby Union, GD -1 would always be a team run, whether it is a 5/6/7/8 or 9 day turnaround. With most teams, irrespective of the sport, GD +1 would typically be a recovery day or an off day. I have never seen a team program a training session the day after a game for players that played, unless in a tournament setting.
Looking to the detail of some of the teams I have been lucky to visit, while there are some similarities, there are also a large number of differences. The greatest level of detail on this came from when I spent time with football (soccer) teams. A 5, 6 and 7-day turnaround was detailed, and also defined was how the typical days within the week looked like from a physical load and a tactical standpoint. Because the training planning was scheduled from a tactical point of view, the physical loading supplemented that (the way it should be in my opinion). Within the period between games, there are 3 objectives:
Players must Recover from the previous game (typically GD +1&2)
Players must be exposed to an Overload, to ensure detraining does not occur (typically GD -4&3)
Players must Taper leading into next game (typically GD -2&1)
While the content within the days can and should change depending on the tactical work-ons from week to week, this structure provides a great system from which practitioners can make an impact on their team.
Within AFL, there can be a wide variety of what teams do, although the principles remain. I was presented two plans used within the Melbourne Demons performance set-up, one from the previous season and one the were trialing when I spent time at their facility. The plan they had used in the previous season incorporated a day off every Wednesday, whether the next game was on Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday. This plan, while potentially being disruptive to the team's preparation, gives players an opportunity to arrange their lives away from their job with a consistent schedule, which can have a positive effect on the players' personal lives and the people around them. The plan the Demons were trialing was a consistent GD -3 through to GD, which looked like:
GD -3: Heavy Pitch Session
GD -2: Off
GD-1: Team Run
This schedule would have the opposite effect: great for team prep, but potentially difficult for players' (and coaches') lives outside of professional football. Another difference between the two schedules was that the first one incorporated two big training sessions per week, while the trial plan had only one big session (GD -3) and included an extra half day off, and this was the big draw towards the trial plan. This was similar to what the Gold Coast Suns did, with one big pitch session in the week, the aim of which being to minimise training fatigue and maximise recovery between games.
Melbourne Storm had a very clear and detailed plan for any given training week. There was slight adjustment based on the number of day between a game, but in general, recovery was prioritised. GD +1 was always off, and on GD +2, the training session only started in the afternoon, so players "felt like they had a day off". Similar to the objectives within the week displayed at Melbourne Victory, Melbourne Storm had 3 objectives: recovery, overload and taper. There were two main pitch sessions, one which prioritised volume and the other which prioritised intensity. GD -2 was off followed by a Captain's run (GD -1) followed by GD. In a 6-day turnaround, one pitch session is dropped, and in an 8-day turnaround, an extra day off is added so recovery between games is not compromised.
Brisbane Broncos also had two days off throughout their week, GD +1 and in between their two training sessions (typically GD -3). Similar to Melbourne Storm, one pitch session prioritised volume, and the other prioritised intensity. The two weekly structures are very similar, with the placement of the recovery day the only real difference. Brisbane Broncos had a very similar format to Irish Rugby in an international game week.
For a completely different perspective, a swim team's training week is pretty rigorous in terms of number of sessions. The swim program that I was involved with had 7 sessions per week:
Monday morning and evening (2)
Tuesday: evening (1)
Thursday: morning and evening (2)
Friday: morning (1)
Saturday: morning (1)
As the athletes involved in this program were a mix of developmental and elite, training took place either side of school and typical work hours. There were 4 conditioning sessions: Monday evening, Tuesday evening, Thursday evening and Saturday morning. The remaining sessions were a combination of active recovery and technical swims. Aside from the pool sessions, all athletes completed 2 strength and conditioning sessions, typically on Tuesday and Friday morning. So essentially, there were 4 double days.
This was a massively eye opening experience for me as I had only ever experienced team sport preparation prior to this. The amount of work and time that these athletes invested into their training was phenomenal, but not only that, the standard of coaching was incredible too. The planning that took place, the adaptability for when an athlete could not train, and the ability to manage multiple programs was brilliant to watch and work closely with. It has been one of my inspirations to stay in coaching since witnessing the swim coaches manage their teams, with 2 coaches in particular leaving a lasting impression on me - Mick Palfrey and Bud McAllister.
It is clear from the huge variation of plans detailed here, that whatever the demands are from a coaching staff, it is possible to come up with a suitable week to week plan to ensure players are optimally prepared for the following game. Not alone the demands from coaching staff, but teams may be handicapped by pitch space or availability, so training time may be very limited. But whatever the scenario, this collection of experiences has had a massively positive effect on me when working with coaches, understanding that whatever the context, we are limited by our own creativity in trying to find a suitable plan.
Special thanks to the following for allowing me to spend time in their company over the last 3 years:
Kiely, John. (2012). Periodization Paradigms in the 21st Century: Evidence-Led or Tradition-Driven?. International journal of sports physiology and performance. 7.