From Denver to Twickenham; an examination of England’s RWC Camp

England host Fiji tonight at Twickenham marking the beginning of the Rugby World Cup 2015. Since its inception in 1987 the tournament has grown exponentially; it is the most watched sporting competition on the planet behind the Football World Cup and the Olympics – a truly global event. The 2015 edition is touted as one of the most open tournaments in history with a number of teams vying for world champion status.

A successful world cup campaign can be immeasurably beneficial. Aside from fame, fortune and adoration it has the unique ability to galvanise a nation and unite its public behind a common cause. Every English rugby fan remembers where they were and who they were with when Jonny Wilkinson landed the winning drop goal in 2003. The euphoric scenes in the following days and weeks demonstrated how much the victory meant to the English public. These are moments etched in the fabric of a nation; they are iconic, enduring and evoke comradery and special memories. With so much at stake and such poignant aura surrounding the spectacle, competing nations do everything in their power to prepare for the challenges ahead. With the evolution of the game and concurrent increases in player size, game speed and energy demands, support staff are always on the lookout for innovative ways to influence match outcomes. Gone are the ‘good old days’ of mid-week benders and post-match ciggies. Preparation governed by hard science has become a focal aspect of the tournament.

One needs to look no further than the preparation strategy of the current English team to see this in action. As the host nation, there is an air of expectation surrounding their participation. If you believe the hype, Lancaster has been building to this for four years. Part of the team’s preparation involved a two week training camp in Denver Colorado during July. Aside from Billy Vunipola’s highly publicised weight loss, what were the benefits of this trip? More importantly, will they give England the edge required to see them crowned as World Champions?

Nicknamed the ‘mile high city’ Denver sits 1610m above sea level. It has become a popular destination for pre-season/tournament camps as a result of its elevation. As an ergogenic aid the concept of altitude training has garnered wide spread attention and examination in the decades following the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

At altitude, although the oxygen content of air remains fairly constant in comparison to sea level (roughly 20.9%), the barometric pressure and therefore partial pressure of oxygen is reduced. This in turn limits the availability of oxygen subsequently forcing the body to acclimate. Training at altitude can confer certain advantageous physiological adaptions. Hypoxic (oxygen deprived) conditions stimulate changes in muscle metabolism and the production of EPO in the kidneys. This in turn increases red blood cell production in order to enhance haemoglobin saturation and oxygen delivery. A combination of such changes can lead to improvements in both aerobic and anaerobic capacity (maximal oxygen uptake, economy, PCr resynthesis and muscle buffering capacity). Given the multifaceted requirements of team sports, and their reliance on varying energy systems, it is clear that training at altitude can be effective for athletes in this domain. That being said the extent of this benefit may differ between players. Although its legitimacy as a training method has been validated, there is much contention regarding its optimal prescription (duration, dose, and protocol) and its universal suitability. In the context of England’s acute foray into altitude there will be a number of factors which may influence the training results.

How high?

Much of the literature regarding altitude training is focused on moderate to high levels of elevation (>2000m). The degree of hypoxia regulates the magnitude of the elicited physiological change in a ‘dose–response’ relationship (provided extreme elevations are not frequented). With England’s training camp set up below this threshold (~1600m) it is unclear whether they will get significant results. That being said, setting up camp at lower elevation will counteract a number of the ill-effects associated with altitude. Altitude sickness can cause headaches, nausea etc.; generally susceptibility to and severity of this condition is influenced by elevation and speed of ascent. It can leave individuals feeling unwell and unable to train – with a relatively short window of two weeks this would be very counterintuitive. At a lower altitude this should not have been an issue, thus ensuring players were able to make the most of their short stint.

R’n’R

At altitude the need of adequate recovery is exacerbated. Respiratory changes accelerate fluid loss at elevation; dehydration occurs at a faster rate. In addition, basal metabolic rate is increased yet appetite is diminished – in order to maintain body mass an increased caloric intake is required. With a team of highly qualified support staff on hand it is likely this would have been addressed.

Response: are we all equal?

Like many exercise interventions there is much variability when it comes to degree of response. Some athletes demonstrate large favourable physiological responses, whereas others gain little from chronic exposure to elevation. It has been postulated the magnitude of red blood cell change may be dependent upon initial haemoglobin mass. The rationale being with a lower initial mass there is a larger latitude for meaningful change. In team sports where a high haemoglobin mass is not generally an essential requirement for all positions, there is much scope for change. That being said, the effectiveness of this training method may be more evident amongst certain team members who occupy particular positions. In this instance it is likely the loose forwards: Robshaw; Wood; and Morgan, whose game play are characterised by repeated high intensity efforts, minimal walking time and significant distance coverage may benefit more than the Wilsons’, Brookes’ and Marlers’.

Does it last?

A downside of hypoxic exposure is a large decrease in maximal aerobic power. Evidently, this can be problematic as training at elevation may inhibit high intensity efforts. This has a somewhat diminishing effect on sessions, decreasing the ability to mimic game intensity. Furthermore, it is unclear how long the effects of acute altitude exposure will persist. Most physiological adaptations are scarcely detectable 4 weeks post descent, however, performance benefits tend to be more robust and can last for longer. Maintenance of adaptations cannot be achieved throughout a season without supplementary hypoxic stimulation. This poses questions regarding the timing of the camp. If adaptations do not persist for more than a few weeks why hold a camp 3 months before the tournament? Interestingly, the ability of players to train at higher intensities in the weeks following the camp (as a direct result of the acclimation process), may allow them to attain a higher level of fitness and performance. In theory, provided training intensity remained high in the following weeks this standard could be maintained for a significant period of time. It is a curious dilemma.

Practicality in procedure

Over the years a number of living/training protocols have been proposed. Live high, train high; live low, train high; live high, train low. The latter has garnered much positive attention recently as it permits passive acclimation while not compromising the ability to train at high intensities. Unfortunately it is unlikely the England camp are going to permanently relocate the Pyrenees – it’s just not practical.

Judgements

The reality is, without being present at the camp, one cannot in good faith make a definitive judgement regarding its effectiveness. From a physiological stand point it is likely that the camp conferred some benefit, but how much? This is anyone’s guess. If we ignore the physiology for one moment and focus on the mental aspect of training it is a different story. The training camp in Denver is likely to have been extremely beneficial. There is little doubt that training at altitude is difficult. Just ask Mako Vunipola. Mako insisted England’s training camp in Denver was so tortuous that he began reconsidering his future in rugby. Although a glance at Mako’s 130kg physique does little to inspire visions of superior fitness and aerobic prowess, his calibre as a rugby player is undeniable. When a capped Lion, and Premiership winner, tells you it was hard, it probably was. Enduring such adversity can stimulate and fortify mental strength. Although an overused cliché when analysing sporting performance, mental toughness is truly a pillar of exceptional performance and often differentiates the good from the great. The ability to execute under pressure in spite of immense fatigue and pain is an immeasurably valuable trait. Pushing the limits in Denver may just make the difference in the dying moments of a match that hangs in the balance.

Food for thought

When all is said and done, history is recanted from the victor’s perspective. No doubt if England are to wage a successful campaign the efficacy and effectiveness of their preparation will be mentioned in the aftermath. Equally, if they are to fail in front of their home crowd, no stone will be left unturned in the post mortem of their performance and every aspect of preparation will be scrutinised. Only time will tell.

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