Legend is a term vastly over-used in sport. But for England rugby sevens star Dan Norton, there’s no argument that his stellar career warrants legendary status – and then some.
Since his introduction to the England side more than a decade ago, Norton has sprinted, side-stepped and swerved his way into the record books, becoming the all-time leading try-scorer in international sevens history.
The Gloucester-born speedster has more than 350 tries to his name. To give that some context, the next best is Kenya’s Collins Injera with 279.
Before he set off to the ongoing Tokyo Olympics to compete for Team GB, we caught up with Norton to find out how he prepares his body for the all-out intensity of rugby sevens.
What makes a great sevens player?
Speed is obviously a big part. In our team, there’s always the out and out quick guys, but generally people have a good turn of pace about them and the ability to use their angles, and decision-making to chase people down.
Fitness is a big part of it as well. Being able to repeat those sprints, changes of direction, and the out and out endurance element.
You need resilience, too. We play ten tournaments in a season, and trying to do that for three or four years starts wearing on you, as do the high training loads.
So endurance is key?
It’s a massive building block for everything. Being able to have that base layer of fitness means you can do a lot more from a speed and power point of view, and you can recover quicker, which means you can have a higher output so it goes hand in hand with everything we’re trying to do.
How much do you work on all-out speed?
Generally, we do speed once a week. It consists of running drills to prime the body and correct any technical flaws you might have, and to make sure all your energy is moving in the right direction. From there, we do different change direction drills, or accelerations and races over 20 or 40 metres.
Do you ever get beaten in training races?
Occasionally, yeah, We’ve got a good environment where everybody’s really competitive. Everyone’s trying to win, people are trying to drag me and others down, so there’s a good level of banter involved as well. It’s a good level to get to as a squad.
Most weeks, there’s a printed out A4 sheet of people’s distances for the week, certain speeds, different targets that we’ve hit. People congregate around that to see what people’s scores are, and take the mick out of those who have hit lesser speeds or distances.
That’s good for people like myself. It drives you to be better as a squad, to see where you are as a group, and where you need to get to.
It’s the same with weights: when you’re doing a session, you can peer over and see what people are doing so you can take the mick or challenge yourself to do more, which is a nice part of being in a team sport. It’s good fun.
What’s the focus with the gym work?
Leg strength and power is key for speed, so we do things like squats, weighted step-ups, and Olympic lifts like hang cleans, power cleans and split jerks. It’s seasonal, so what we do would depend on where we are in the season, and where we are in our programme.
In a pre-season, we’re doing higher-reps to get more intensity into it, then when we’re playing, we’re tapering slightly but trying to hold on to our strength by doing single reps, and that might be combined with an explosive exercise like hurdle band jumps.
We do exercises where you’re forced to exert your energy and speed in a very quick, switched-on manner, because these resemble the first couple of steps of an acceleration phase when you’re sprinting.
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Why is power so important?
Everything in my game is based around speed. Being able to be as quick as possible and beat the person in front of me is key to what I’m about in my position in the team.
So for me to be able to increase my power output, hopefully I can produce more force, where I’m accelerating every step to make sure I’m propelling myself in the right direction at a quicker rate than everybody else.
What’s the toughest thing about being a sevens player?
The hardest thing at times is the jetlag. We once went from Wellington, New Zealand which is 12 hours ahead of the UK, and the following Monday we flew to Las Vegas, which is eight hours behind the UK, so there are massive swings in the time differences. It’s a challenge to get recovery and sleep.
You do get to see some incredible places, though?
To be able to fly around the world and play a sport in different countries, with the sun on your back, is pretty special, and it’s very hard to replicate in any other sport. There’s nothing like it.
Dubai is amazing at the start of the year. There’s a lot of expats based out there, and great memories as we’ve won out there twice. Vancouver is played around March/April, in an indoor stadium on a 4G pitch, which is like playing on a carpet – really fast track, and a lot of action. It’s two degrees outside, but inside there’s this massive buzz of energy.
There are some amazing memories, playing awesome rugby in awesome countries and having a few good beers as well, so it makes it all quite entertaining.
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Dan Norton’s 3 Favourite Gym Exercises
Discover the best dumbbell exercises for every body part
“The standard squat is a big part of having strong legs and being able to shift the weight around.
“You see the transition from it as well – if I’m lifting heavy and well in my squat, then I’m able to run fast. Normally we’ll do anywhere between 3 and 6 reps – it varies during the season.”
2. Banded Plyometric Agility Hurdles
“There are four or five hurdles set out at a certain height, so you’re trying to jump that height and repeat that four or five times. There’s a metre or a metre and a half between each one, so you land and then propel yourself forward to the next one.
“Jumping over each one while banded, rather than jumping and landing and trying to squat, you’re actually doing broad jumps. It’s a fast, high-output kind of exercise, and you do it nice and quick in repetitive, bounding movements.”
3. Weighted Step-Ups
“A lot of the stuff I enjoy is more lower body – these step-ups are a good way of building control for the knees and glutes, and strong legs as well. Although you can do dumbbells for step-ups, we use barbells because they work the core more and you can add more weight on.”
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Words: Gershon Portnoi