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How do the Red Roses train in the gym and what's their physical preparation approach?

By Lucy Lomax
England's Abbie Ward lifts weights in the gym. Credit: RFU

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Before joining the England Women’s set-up in autumn 2020, strength and conditioning coach Alex Martin helped prepare rugby players at London Wasps and Leicester Tigers. His role with the Red Roses is to decipher how the coach wants to play the game and help ensure that the team is best prepared to execute it.


RugbyPass spoke to Martin about how he contributes to England’s style of play and why he’s favoured a different approach to traditional fitness testing.

“What we’ve tried to do is take a top-down, on-field performance approach, which is empathetic to the Head Coach’s game model,” said Martin. “We need to ensure that we’re contributing towards that so we do a lot more specific training, with a large proportion of it being performed on the field so as to promote field transfer and performance.

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“It’s all about working back from that game model. The Red Roses have a clear way of playing the game and within that each player is challenged with executing certain actions. My job is to work out where the gaps lie in those and how they can be plugged from a physical end.

“We call it continuous, invisible testing and we use tracking technology, so whenever the players are practicing, we’re gleaning rich information on them and are consistently evaluating their performance so when we need to, we make interventions.

“We’re no longer blocking out two days to do fitness testing, which has the potential to boost the ego of someone in my seat but has limited relevance to field performance.  We need to recognise that we don’t get that many days exposure to the players, so we don’t want to waste precious time with non-informative testing. We are doing it anyway, but in a way that doesn’t disturb the rugby programme.”

“Every day of camp is themed. For example, the first day of the training week is slow in order to gain clarity. The second day is fast. On this day decision making and skill execution is overloaded by taking away time and space via fast movement velocities. The session generally comprises of both unit and team speed components, e.g. kick sprint scenarios, with GPS to help us assess the intensity of these efforts.


“We need players running at maximum velocity in order to take space and win the ball back as far up the field as possible, so that gives you an example of how we go about assessing them on a regular basis but in a way that is unfussy and doesn’t disturb what we’re trying to do on the field, whilst also being relevant to the game model.”

Martin continues to explain how his discipline of physical preparation not only ties in with the coaches but other areas of physical performance.

“There is a lot of cross over with physical preparation and nutrition. I might be able to achieve certain adaptations but in order to realise those, good nutrition is critical.

“Therefore, I’ll speak to the nutritionist about macronutrient intake, including the 3Ts – type, timing and total, to achieve the desired changes that we are targeting. But again, it’s all in context of how Simon (Middleton, head coach) wants to play the game, so we establish our tactics separately in our roles and then work in synergy to try and maximise those.”


In the game of rugby, with so many positions and different shapes and sizes, Martin explains how he adapts training for the various different body types.

“The playing characteristics are significantly different between a prop and a winger so there will be differences. Wingers won’t need the extra mass that a front five player might need, as they’re involved in scrums and mauls and they might carry more non-functional mass to be more effective in their role of scrummaging and mauling, whereas a winger doesn’t need that non-functional mass, they need to be as lean as possible so they can take and make space, so that’s more about power to weight ratio.

“Each England player has an individual development plan (IDP) and as part of that we’ve identified three key field actions per position. They’re then rated on pressure gauges because our overarching theme to our game model is pressure with intensity so we will rate them on these pressure gauges and then we establish what the gap is and how to close it.

“It might be for example, that the impact of a player’s actions such as ball carrying, tackling, jackling, might be really effective but their frequency isn’t high enough so they’re not able to do it often enough in a game and that might be related to fatigue-resistance. Therefore, we may employ specific training to increase their repeatability.”

With the duration of this year’s tournament back up to the usual round-robin style of five matches and a fallow weekend, how does the physical performance team go about keeping the players fit and ready to perform throughout the entirety of the championship?

“When we’re in a competition block it’s all about maximising the player’s state of readiness to perform. There are two main variables: preparedness and freshness. During the first part of the Six Nations campaign we emphasised the preparedness side of the equation and when we get to the back end of the campaign we’ll focus more on freshness.

“With preparedness we might expose the players to a bit more volume which then comes at the cost of fatigue, but we’re comfortable going into certain games with a bit more fatigue and operating under those conditions, whereas when we get to the back end of the tournament, we know that we need to pull back on volume, whilst maintaining intensity.”

We’re aware of how competitive professional sports people can be, which Martin knows only too well when it comes to splitting players up in the gym environment.

“The players are generally split into forwards and backs. The main reason for that is so we can get better eyes on what they’re doing to make sure the execution is good but also to create a competitive session climate as we will get better intensity and a heightened level of performance from the players. When we feed back their results, we also present this in a head-to-head type of format to try and raise the element of competition.”

Martin explains from his experience in the men’s game, how much the men and women’s games differ when it comes to the different requirements of training.

“In the men’s game you will see more soft tissue injuries, in the form of muscle tears whereas in the women’s game it’s a lot more ligamentous injuries and that’s somewhat related to oestrogen (female sex hormone), so we utilise specific nutritional interventions to help raise tissue robustness.

“Another area of focus is the players’ menstrual cycles. When I first entered the programme, 66% of the players reported that certain parts of their menstrual cycle had a debilitating effect on their performance. As such, we are continuing to evolve our practices in the area of female athlete health.

“It involves some tweaks around nutrition and adapting peripheral training, not core training, but we’re trying to get better at understanding how the menstrual cycle can effect players in certain phases and how this impacts on their performance on an individual level.”


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