Rugby’s Welsh warrior
As Wales strive to reclaim the Six Nations championship, their flying winger George North talks to MF about the tough training – both physical and mental – and innovative nutrition that have made him one of the stars of world rugby
Wales, Lions and Northampton Saints winger George North on how you can perform at a higher level
Power, speed and mental steel are all matchwinning tools in the bruising arena of modern rugby, and Wales rugby star George North has fused all three into a devastating combination. The bulldozing winger is a 1.93m,105kg titan who can bench 160kg and squat 255kg, but he unites that brute force with jet-heeled speed (running 40m in under 5sec) and an ice-cold mentality that frees him to perform under intense pressure.
North has 27 tries in 65 appearances for Wales, making him the fourth most successful try-scorer in the nation’s history - and he’s still only 24. But his size, pace and psyche are the result of hard work, smart nutrition, scientific conditioning and mental training, not genetic luck.
“I’m not naturally this big. I’ve had to work hard in the gym and be really strict with my nutrition to keep the mass on and maintain my speed,” says North, who has packed on 26kg of muscle since turning pro. “Even now I fluctuate in size but I work hard to stay on weight. Putting weight on is difficult but when you have to carry it for 80 minutes each Saturday and through hard training sessions you need to get really focused on training and nutrition.”
As the 2017 RBS Six Nations hots up, with Wales aiming to go one better than their secondplace finish in 2016, North discusses his blueprint for physical and psychological domination.
How does your gym training change throughout the year?
It’s about knowing where you are and where you want to go. By where you are, I mean identifying where you are at physically, and how much training load you are used to. By where you are going, I mean what your goal is. For a guy on the street, that might be working for a summer body, whereas for athletes that goal changes throughout the year. Pre-season is about getting bigger. Mid-season is about maintaining it. Then at the end of the season we need to recover and adapt for when the ground is harder and we need to be quicker.
How brutal is pre-season training?
For rugby players, pre-season is really a devil. It is something we have to go through to prepare for the battle on its way. It’s an enjoyable but hard time. You’re trying to get your size and mass and lungs ready for the season ahead but it is a tough old one to get through.
What gym training protocols work best for you?
What works best for me is overload and repeatability work, so making sure I can maintain high-intensity efforts repeatedly. That means I have to go hard and just keep going hard, with lots of repetitions and not much rest. In the gym I am a big fan of compound lifts like back squats and Bulgarian split squats. If you are not used to them you get unbelievable DOMS but they are really efficient.
The Wales squad has some innovative sports science support. What’s the main lesson you’ve learned from the backroom staff?
I am not sure how much I am allowed to say of this! But with Wales the bit I have found most beneficial is the concept of
training specifically. So rather than the old days of going to the base line and running until someone says “stop”, we identify what each position has to do and try to replicate that in our conditioning. So rather than me doing short, sharp blocks - like a forward replicating making a hit, getting up from a ruck and running to the next ruck – I will focus on high-speed metres covered and making repeated efforts at faster than 7.3m per second, as that is the speed I work at consistently. Getting your muscles to adapt to that exposure of high-speed running is pretty horrible.
What is the hardest conditioning session you do?
Wattbikes are always the horrible one. I am a fan but not a fan, if that makes sense. We also have a session called 30-15s which is horrible. You run for 30 seconds, stop for 15 seconds, then keep on going until you can’t run any more. We also have what we call a “runway” – it’s a variation on that kind of horrible conditioning with lots of high-speed running and not much rest. They are my three worst, most horrible ones.
Despite the smart science, do you still enjoy old-school training drills?
Rugby is not a sport like rowing where the movements are very specific. We need a bag of tricks and we need to be good at most things. So a lot of our training is about moving weight around efficiently, with things like sled drags, tugs of war and tackle bag slams. We’re trying to move the weight as quickly as we can because those actions replicate the different things we have to do on the field.
How do you sharpen up your speed?
We do power endurance circuit training, which forces you to repeat high-intensity efforts. For example, you might do a short
sprint, go into some burpees so you have to get on the floor like you would mid-tackle, and then sprint, do a power roll on the floor, get up and sprint again. Basically, we’re replicating the kind of movements we would do on the pitch.
Given the volume of your training, how do you keep it fun?
[Laughs] You don’t! No, we are in a squad environment, which really helps. If you are training alone it’s difficult to find motivation, so I can understand it when guys struggle training on their tod. But when I go to the gym I have 25 mates there at the same time, so on days when you’re not feeling up for it, there might be 15 other guys who are, so that collective motivation pushes you on. A lot of it is about having the right music as well. Sometimes you get a shocking playlist and think, “What is this!?” but other times you enjoy the music while you graft. With the Wales guys, Liam Williams fancies himself as a DJ and Jonathan Davies does too. But Jamie Roberts has got particularly poor taste in music.
In peak condition you bench 160kg and squat 255kg. Is that the same during the season?
I’m probably not at those weights at the moment as I am maintaining weight. It is tough on the body – we’re getting aches and pains and niggles throughout the season. After the autumn Tests, some bits were just hanging on and I was held together by tape around my shoulder, so I’m not at those numbers now.
What is the main nutrition lesson you have learned in the last few years?
In pre-season I try to eat clean but because we’re working hard, burning
“When I go to the gym I have 25 mates there at the same time. That collective motivation pushes you on”
5,000 to 5,500 calories a day, it’s really just about getting it all in for repair and recovery. When I’m trying hard to maintain weight, volume is really important. When it comes to maintaining mass during the season, that’s when you have to get clever about how much you are taking in and how much you are burning.
What do you eat before a match?
For a 2.30pm kick-off, knowing how I burn food and how my carb stores work, I will have a hearty spag bol the night before. It’s got a good source of carbs and protein in there. I will make a big batch so I have some ready for the next day. For breakfast I will have a bagel with avocado, bacon and scrambled egg, a pint of water with electrolytes and some fruit and a protein bar as a snack. Then for lunch I will have the rest of last night’s spag bol.
How do you tailor your match-day nutrition to different kick-offs?
Timing is really important. For a 2.30pm kick-off it all falls quite nicely so I can get up, have breakfast, a snack and some lunch and you are ready to go. But with a 5.30pm kick-off or later you have to plan your whole day around eating… which is quite sad really, isn’t it? I need to plan when to have a protein shake or a bar, when to have a lighter meal and when to have a heavier meal. I’m constantly trying to work it out and, honestly, it’s hard.
Are you any good in the kitchen?
My culinary skills are… what’s a polite way of saying useless? I can cook a bit and I am obviously not starving but I am very lucky that my girlfriend Becky [James, the Team GB track cyclist] is an amazing chef and I have learned from her. It is handy as she is an athlete as well.
What supplements do you take?
For me the staple thing during the season is immune support and joint care. It’s a time of the year when it’s easy to pick up sniffs, coughs and so on so I like to get some immune support with vitamins and minerals, as well as omega 3 for my joints. In general I always get a Promax shake in after a big gym session or rugby session, in that window for muscle repair. I take beta-alanine [an amino acid that reduces fatigue] after a big series of Wales games too.
Wales are playing England and Ireland at home in the Six Nations this year. How do you mentally prepare?
There is always more excitement for those matches, but playing in big matches isn’t a shock because I practise my preparation in my club games for Northampton. I work on staying focused and relaxing so when the international games come along I have had all those feelings before, I know what to expect and I’m not shocked. Practising for pressure brings an air of normality to it.
How do you recover from a bodyscarring Six Nations battle?
We use cryotherapy which is very effective. Although I don’t like to say it in case the conditioning coaches read this and make us do more.
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“I have to go hard and just keep going hard,” says North, pictured playing against France in the 2016 Six Nations, of his training
North plans his pre-match nutrition carefully, particularly for a late kick-off – this tour match in New Zealand in 2016 started at 7.30pm