An age-old rivalry decided by modern scientific advances? Hitting the peaks of performance

By Gavin Williams

Picture by Tomos Evans

Picture by Tomos Evans

Picture by Tomos Evans

Picture by Tomos Evans

Saturday represents the 127th International match between England and Wales, in what is the most significant game of the Rugby World Cup so far and undoubtedly the most significant match-up between the two nations in over a decade. At this point in the tournament, the stakes couldn’t be higher. A win could ensure one foot is firmly placed in the quarter finals but a loss ensures a must-win game against an in-form Australia XV who have just won the Rugby Championship. Of the 126 International matches between the two, England have won 58 and Wales 56.

The potential impact of home advantage is well documented, but Warren Gatland’s side have won twice at Rugby HQ since 2008, so the Twickenham fear-factor felt by Welsh teams of old is one not shared by the current group. Others have commented on the psychological impact of kit colour, and this may bode well for Wales as red has been shown to be associated with greater success. Debates will rage about the respective starting XVs, what they mean for the style of play adopted and how each will attempt to manage the game. These debates will extend beyond kick-off, at 8 p.m. on Saturday evening and continue well after the final whistle sounds.

At this level of the sport, what is clear however is the fine margin which differentiates between success and failure. This is encapsulated in a term, marginal gains, often associated with British Cycling and Team Sky and coined by Sir Dave Brailsford who describes it as “… the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of … and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together”.

So how does this relate to Saturday’s game?

The search for these marginal gains and the extra edge to enhance performance explains the reason behind the intense – and somewhat gruelling – training camps undertaken by both teams in preparation for the tournament. The phrase attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail” certainly cannot be directed at either camp in advance of the tournament.

Wales held a two-week camp at high altitude in Switzerland, employing a ‘live high-train low’ (LHTL) methodology. There were training camps in the heat of Doha where the squad continued to sleep at high altitude, in Colwyn Bay, north Wales and finally at their oft-utilised camp in Spala, Poland. England meanwhile utilised a two-week high altitude camp travelling in Denver, Colorado, approximately a mile above sea level, employing a ‘live high-train high’ (LHTH) methodology followed with training at their base in Pennyhill Park, Surrey.

Although the specific method employed by both teams differed, the use of high altitude highlights the investment in state-of-the-art training methods to gain an advantage.

But how would this impact on their performance at the Rugby World Cup?

Altitude presents a distinct physiological challenge to the body due to decreased barometric pressure, and thus, decreased partial pressure of oxygen (PO2) – termed hypoxia. It is widely documented to adversely affect human performance in the short-term (West, 1999), and initially lessens the intensity and duration of training that athletes are able to sustain due to the decreased availability of oxygen for working muscles.

Acclimatization to altitude however can result in central and peripheral physiological adaptations that improve performance, perhaps the most important an increase in the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. This is achieved through a proliferation of red blood cell production initiated by erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone predominantly produced in the kidneys and perhaps more commonly known for its use in blood doping by cyclists, which can enhance endurance performance and recovery.

More traditionally associated with endurance athletes, the potential impact of altitude training for team sports is now being explored (Brocherie et al., 2015).

The use of a LHTH methodology may be limiting as it detrimentally impacts on training intensity so other methods have been sought. Live-high train-low (LHTL), the method adopted by the Wales camp in Switzerland and Doha, is seen as the ‘Gold-standard’ altitude training method to enhance athletic performance (Levine and Stray-Gundersen, 1997). It is increasingly being used by sports teams at the elite level, as it can realise the benefits of increased red blood cell production attained through living and sleeping at higher altitudes without compensating training intensity. It therefore avoids the potential issues encountered with LHTH methods. This is of particular importance for relatively short stays at altitude, like those undertaken by the Wales and England camps.

Furthermore, in an intermittent sport such as rugby, increased red blood cell count and enhanced oxygen-carrying capacity can promote recovery between the bouts of exercise, which may have an impact during the latter stages of the match. This of course may influence the tactical approach with the sides seeking to employ a high-tempo game, keeping the ball in play for long durations to tire their opponents.   The Welsh squad is renowned for the emphasis placed on fitness levels while the commentary team during last Friday’s opening game against Fiji highlighted the importance of keeping the ball in play for the English side. It could well be, then, that the side which is better prepared physically will emerge victorious as the impact of fatigue on decision making and the ability to stick to the game-plan may well have a significant impact on the outcome.

So off the back of a strenuous summer of training, which team will be savouring the fruits of their labour? By 9:45 p.m. tomorrow evening, we will find out.

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