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Kevin Sinfield: the England rugby league star talks to MF

Fitness
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Rugby league is tough. The pace of the game is full throttle, the collisions brutal and the intensity ferocious. It helps to be big and strong, but to stand out you need the complete package. In other words, ‘It’s all right being able to lift a cow, but if you can’t catch one what’s the point?’

Those are the words of Kevin Sinfield, the England and Leeds Rhinos captain and kicker who has led his club to unprecedented success in Super League. At the start of the year he received the prestigious Golden Boot, awarded to the best player in the world – an honour traditionally dominated by stars playing in the southern hemisphere. And on 26th October he’ll be leading England out against Australia at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium for the start of the World Cup in England and Wales.

But none of this would have been possible if he didn’t know the best way to make the most of his physical ability.

Physically, what was the biggest turning point in your development?

When I first joined Leeds 15 years ago we’d hammer the weights sessions – at one point I didn’t do any running for three months. I was actually bigger when I was younger. By 22, I started to feel like I wasn’t fit enough and that I was too heavy for my structure. Our conditioning set-up changed and we agreed to focus on more running. It was more important for me to be fit than strong. Regularly resetting your goals like this is important to make sure you train intelligently.

If not size, what is the key physical ability needed for rugby league?

We need to be able to run. I don’t mean long distances but at different speeds for lengthy periods of time. So we do varied-pace interval running. You need to be strong and powerful, but rugby league tests every facet of your fitness. You could have very good endurance but when you get hit and you’ve got to get up off the ground with three men on top of you it tests everything.

How tough is pre-season training?

That’s when the hard work gets done. We’ll do four heavy weights sessions a week, with two upper and two lower-body moves, plus some swimming for mobility. And we have bruising contact sessions where you’re just bashing into each other to get your body prepared for matches. We’ll spend most of it with serious DOMS [delayed onset muscle soreness] struggling even to sit on the toilet. Non-internationals who start pre-season earlier will build up gradually with more cardio work. They’ll start with longer-distance runs and taper down to short, sharp, intense intervals.

How does that prepare you for your first match of the season?

Before the first game you feel good and strong, but no matter how much training you’ve done it never seems to prepare you for the game itself. You can be in the best condition you’ve ever been in but you’ll get into a game and you can’t understand why you’re so tired. It takes three or four games to get there but everyone’s in the same boat – no matter if you’ve had three months or three weeks to prepare.

How do you train between matches?

We achieve most of our fitness from matches, so during the season most of the work we do in training is maintenance. There’s no point blasting your legs in the gym. Physically you’ll struggle and mentally you’ll go into a match feeling rubbish. There’s no better feeling than waking up on game day and feeling fresh, with a spring in your legs and loads of energy.

How do weights sessions change?

In season we cut back our weekly weights sessions to only one or two and drop the weight considerably. Out of season I do 100kg deep squats for ten-rep sets, but during the season I drop that to 60kg for six supersets with 40kg powerful jump squats. I make sure I get really deep to improve my mobility.

Do you find any aspect of your training difficult?

I’ve never really struggled with any aspect of fitness. I’ve always slept well, and have never struggled with weight or recovery. But I do treat myself with dark chocolate, which can actually be quite good for you. If you’re going to eat chocolate it might as well be the best.

What supplements work for you?

Apart from protein shakes after training and matches, I don’t take any supplements. I get everything I need from my diet. I used to take caffeine before matches but now I prefer anything that will keep me relaxed. I don’t eat too much before a game either. I like to feel empty on game day.

How do you recharge your batteries away from rugby league?

The season is so intense and there’s practically no break between one and the next, but I let off steam by spending time with my family. If I’m not training I’ll have contractual obligations to fill, but I find it helps if I switch my phone off to get away from it all.

How can England benefit from home support at the Rugby League World Cup later this year?

Rugby league is at the heart of so many communities and last year the country really got behind the athletes at the home Olympics. Hopefully we can benefit from a similar lift. We’ve got a fantastic squad and a great chance and if we can be successful I can see the sport benefiting from a similar reaction rugby union enjoyed when England won the 2003 World Cup.

Kevin Sinfield uses Multipower Sportsfood. For sports nutrition tailored to your individual needs, visit multipower.com (opens in new tab)

Nick Hutchings worked for Men’s Fitness UK, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Nick worked as digital editor from 2008 to 2011, head of content until 2014, and finally editor-in-chief until 2015.