Who is fitter: rugby players or footballers?

10 September 2019

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Question

Who is fitter: rugby players or football players?

Answer

Dan Gordon, exercise physiologist from Anglia Ruskin University, answers Ben's tricky question...

Dan - This is, I mean this is one of those, it’s a bit like the insect question, this is a classic question and it's actually, without wanting to sit on the fence, it's actually really difficult to say because you have to think what we mean by fitness. So actually a footballer is fit to play football, a rugby player is fit to play rugby, so I could sit on the fence and go: “Well actually, we don't really know.” Well, we know a little bit more.

I mean if we look at say, basic cardiovascular, cardiorespiratory fitness, what's interesting is that they're pretty similar. So if we take what's called the VO2 max, the maximum amount of oxygen that somebody can consume, the general population has a score of about 40 to 45 milliliters per kilogram per minute of oxygen. A male footballer is in the region of about 55 - 58 and a male rugby player is very very similar region.

Where it gets quite fascinating is when you look at things like distances covered, so the distances covered in a game of football, the midfielder’s running about 11 to 14 kilometres. Referees are actually running more, which is just a side issue. In rugby, actually again it's positional dependent. So if you're playing as a forward then clearly you're not going to run as much as for example a midfielder. But when you get into things like measures of strength, now we start to see the difference. Clearly rugby players are able to exert more force per unit of mass.

Are they more powerful? Again it depends on the position that you're playing. So it is a slightly loaded question. So if you know, if you're going to compare them on your classic TV show, and I don’t know  if you remember Superstars. I mean I used to love Superstars, and you compared them, actually it was interesting that rugby players never used to do as well on Superstars compared to footballers, and the aim of that program was that you always compared people across different sports that took them out of their own events, and so going back to that era when we had superstars, then one might argue tentatively that footballer is fitter than a rugby player!

Chris - It is kind of a question of sort of horses for courses isn't it?

Dan - Absolutely.

Chris - Because if you took a rugby player, they're not going to be very good at the pole vault, are they? Let's be honest. But then, the vaulter is not going to be very good at rugby.

Dan - Exactly that. You know, I mean I always say to my students who's fitter at a sumo wrestler or a marathon runner. Of course they go marathon runner. But no, they're just not. They’re fit for running a marathon but they are not fit to be a sumo wrestler and actually you start getting down to genetics. So actually there is no way you're ever going to take a footballer and turn a footballer into a prop forward. That's just not gonna happen. You know, they don't have the genetics for building muscle mass. They don't have the genetics for force generation, and the flip side is the same for football. In football, there's a lot of this work to do with what we call stretch shortening cycle, which is this idea of a fast force production. Rugby players don't have that kind of fast force production as a football player. So there, you have got that large genetic component as well.

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