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Preventing injuries on the rugby pitch

Want to play safer and avoid injuries on the pitch? Daniel Watson, Head of Medical at London Broncos Rugby League, shares his professional expertise around injury prevention.

Daniel Watson has over 10 years’ experience in physiotherapy and sports medicine. He has worked with professional cricketers and ballet dancers as well as rugby players, helping athletes at the top of their game prevent, manage and recover from injuries.

Injuries are inevitable in a contact sport such as rugby. You may be reading this and be one of the few lucky ones to evade the injury ‘jinx‘, but play the game long enough and it will catch up with you. That’s because, unlike an actual jinx, injuries are not purely down to luck.

The keys to avoiding injury on the rugby pitch

The key concepts you need to understand regarding injury prevention are risk management and preparation. Understanding these concepts will give you the power to change behaviours and make better decisions.

I’ll stop short of promising that you will never suffer an injury again. That’s a promise I can’t keep. However, if applied well, these practices should mean that injuries happen less frequently and are often less severe.

The 5 most common injuries on the rugby pitch

The importance of risk management

Recognising and identifying risk are the cornerstones of my practice in professional sport. I have found over time that common themes emerge and are of particular importance.

Identifying your personal risk level
To gain an insight into your personal risk level, you should start by answering the following three questions:

  • Have you suffered previous injuries?
  • Is your training schedule erratic?
  • Are you playing beyond your level of current ability?
  • If you are answering yes to one or more of these questions then you may be at higher risk of developing an injury compared to someone who answers no to all three.

Controlling these risks

The good news is that you can absolutely take control and manage these risks.

If you have suffered an injury, please seek medical attention and ask for help before returning to training. A medical professional will help you assess the damage, begin recovery and decide when it’s time to get back to play.

Read Daniel’s advice on recovering from a rugby injury
Be aware of your training habits and how often you train. Simply tracking this and avoiding significant increases or decreases is going to minimise the likelihood of an injury. This is particularly true for contact-based sessions, which are often very demanding.

Are you playing at the right level? Is the standard too demanding? You may be a teenager playing with adults, an older statesman playing with younger men or recently invited to play at a higher level.

If you can’t keep up with play, notice a drop in your skill level or take longer to recover from tackles, consider finding a level that matches your ability, or spend more time on your preparation in order to meet the demands.

Preparation is key to good play

A common misconception is that we play sport to get fit. In reality we need to be fit in order to play sport, especially if we are serious about preventing injuries.

This doesn’t mean you need to spend months preparing yourself like the professionals. Allocating time to developing a basic level of fitness is an important step in preventing injuries.

Depending on your playing position and the code of rugby you play, there may be specific physical requirements that you should focus on and these are best discussed with a professional. However, there are some basic areas that all players can consider as part of their preparation:

Photos: London Broncos RL second row Will Lovell puts Daniel’s advice into practice.

Lower limb strength

Lower limb strength is vital for rugby players. It provides power for movement and helps with the stability of commonly-injured joints such as the knee.

The ability to single leg press over 1.3-1.5 times your body weight is a good indicator of lower limb strength and we often see professionals pressing twice their body weight for one rep.

No leg press machine? No problem. Try single-leg squatting 12-15 times, which is a good indicator of strength endurance.

Upper body strength

Upper body strength is so important for absorbing the high impact forces that occur playing rugby.

Professionals bench press big weights, often exceeding 1.5-2 times their body weight. If you are playing amateur rugby, I would expect you to press your own body weight as a minimum.

No Bench press? Performing 20-25+ continuous and quality press ups would suggest a good level of upper body strength.

Aerobic fitness.

Injury risk is heightened when we play while fatigued. This is due to our muscles producing less power as well as the fact that being tired leads to poorer decision making. This can result in missed-time tackles or changes in our pattern of movement, placing extra strain on muscles and joints.

A good level of aerobic fitness reduces the impact of fatigue and therefore reduces the risk of injury.

Positional demands will dictate your required level of aerobic fitness. However, you can perform a simple running test that we use with the professionals to determine your current level. Our players run a shuttled 1.2km in under 5 minutes. If you are an amateur player, running a straight 1.2km in under 6-7 minutes suggests you have a good baseline.

Get tips on running from a professional athlete
Injuries don’t happen purely by chance. Changing behaviours and taking action by preparing well and managing risk can reduce your chances of getting an injury on the rugby pitch.

If you are unfortunate enough to suffer an injury, these concepts remain true for when you return to fitness and will provide a firm foundation for long-term fitness and health.

Want to get a taste of recovery like a professional rugby player? The London Broncos use our AlterG® anti-gravity treadmill at The Hendon Hospital to help them get back to peak performance.