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How Carlin Isles Became the Fastest Rugby Player on Earth

He outran a tough childhood to become the speediest rugby player on the planet, and he’s got some tips to improve your quickness, too.

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How Carlin Isles Became the Fastest Rugby Player on Earth
Dan Mullan - World Rugby / Getty

"I'm scared of being average,” says Carlin Isles, though there is little danger of that at the moment, given that he’s widely known as the fastest male rugby player on earth. The reason why Isles is motivated by fear—“I let it drive me,” he says—dates back to a time long before he blossomed into a budding star on the USA’s rugby sevens squad and before he set records on his college track team, and even before he astonished his coaches and teammates with his athleticism and speed on the football field. It goes back all the way to a childhood spent in foster care, to a time when he wasn’t sure if he would ever make it out of northeast Ohio without dying or landing in jail.

Isles’ adoptive parents took in Carlin and his twin sister when they were nearly 8 years old. And amid that newfound stability, Isles figured out he had a gift: his speed. After he graduated from Ashland University, where he played football and ran track (he set the school’s indoor record in the 60 meters and once returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown), Isles held off on finding a nine-to-five job, because he figured he wasn’t finished utilizing that gift he’d been given.

Enter rugby.

Isles was looking for a track club to join when he discovered footage of rugby. Intrigued, he spent his last $500 of savings to move to Aspen, CO, and join a club team. Eventually, he signed with the Glasgow Warriors in Scotland and even briefly landed a spot on the practice squad of the Detroit Lions (he ran a 4.22 40-yard dash) before he turned his focus to rugby full-time. The shift required him to up his aerobic capacity so he could handle the constant sprinting inherent to the sport. It also meant he had to become a more patient runner and to figure out how and when to juke defenders on the pitch. “I like to go past 100%,” he says. “I like to go fast. Sometimes when I need to make a decision, it’s already too late because I’m going a million miles per hour.”

How do you get to be as fast as Carlin Isles? You probably can’t, unless you’ve got remarkable genetics, but you can work on improving the speed you do have. Isles recommends focusing on two key areas: First, develop an understanding of the mechanics of sprinting. “If you understand body angles and how to produce force to the ground, it would be better for you than just going out and running,” he says.

Second: Alternate between days with short sprints and long sprints to train your body to develop both force and endurance. Maybe do some 10-, 20-, and 30-meter sprints one day going all out, and then do some longer sprints, say 60 and 80 meters, at 90% effort, on another day. You’ll slowly build strength that way, and, as Isles points out, “when you’ve got that strength, it’s money.”

Jewell also recommends overspeed training: For example, running on a treadmill faster than you might be comfortable with, or even sprinting on a slight downhill grade in order to get your muscles firing a little
bit quicker. You can also perform single-leg sprints on a treadmill, though make sure it’s a specialized treadmill with a harness that’s designed for that kind of workout. (You don’t want to wind up literally hitting the wall.)

Isles' Speed Workout

Want to improve your speed, explosiveness, and leg strength? Try this routine, which Isles performs regularly. You can complete it outdoors or indoors.

  • 10-meter sprint: 2-3 reps
  • 20-meter sprint: 2-3 reps
  • 30-meter sprint: 2-3 reps
  • Burpee: 4 sets of 12 reps
  • 40-meter overspeed sprint*: 4 reps
  • Box jump: 4 sets of 8 reps
  • Box stepup**: 4 sets of 8 reps

*If outside, sprint down a hill. If inside, sprint on a treadmill at top speed or, if it’s a specialized treadmill with a harness, do single-leg sprints.

**Alternate legs.

Isles' Weekly Regimen

  • Monday: Conditioning/speed work
  • Tuesday: Gym work, rugby training, hand-eye training
  • Wednesday: Rest
  • Thursday: Rugby training
  • Friday: Rugby training, video review
  • Saturday: Conditioning/speed work
  • Sunday: Rest
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