Playing Rugby at Altitude (Explained)

Now that the top South African rugby clubs have joined a European league, more teams are traveling to play rugby at altitude. Most European teams are at sea level, while some of the South African clubs are at much higher altitudes.

It’s been known for a long time that sport at altitude is more difficult than doing it closer to sea level. The main reason is that the air gets thinner the farther one moves away from low to higher altitudes.

Rugby has high aerobic and anaerobic demands. This article looks at the specific effects that altitude has on the game of rugby.

Effects Of Altitude On The Rugby Ball

The first effect that altitude has on the play of rugby actually has nothing to do with the fitness or aerobic capacity of the player. Altitude actually affects how the ball behaves!

When a ball is kicked or passed it starts to travel at speed. The moment the ball leaves the player’s hand or foot, two main forces start to act on it: gravity and air resistance.

Gravity is no different on a mountaintop than it is on the beach. But air resistance is very different.

Air resistance is essentially caused by the molecules in the air bouncing off the ball as it moves from one point to another. More molecules equal more resistance!

Because the air at altitude is thinner, it has fewer molecules and creates less resistance.

The result of this is that the ball travels farther and faster at altitude than it does at sea level.

This is something that the player needs to take into account when making or reacting to kicks and passes. Kicks will go higher, and passes will go longer. The kicker has to adjust to ensure they don’t kick the ball too far.

And players chasing the ball may have to run a little faster. This brings us to the next topic!

Effects Of Altitude On Rugby Players

With thinner air, there is less oxygen. Each breath a player takes is giving them less of the oxygen they need to function.

Athletes who are unused to altitude can have effects that include:

  • higher heart rates
  • elevated blood pressure
  • dehydration
  • cognitive impairment (thinking less quickly)

Given this, it’s not surprising that there’s a noticeable difference in player performance at high altitudes.

The two main physiological effects directly applicable to rugby are the effects on aerobic and anaerobic performance.

Impact On Aerobic Performance

Players at high altitudes have less energy than they do at lower levels. Many complain of a feeling of burning lungs from a relatively light effort.

A study done during the 2010 Football World Cup showed that low altitude teams covered significantly less distance during a match on a high altitude pitch than they would cover closer to sea level.

This makes sense. Thinner air has less volume, so each lungful of air is providing less oxygen to the player’s bloodstream and to their muscles. That means less fuel for the efforts of the match.

The inability to take in as much oxygen as they are used to would lead to quicker and greater fatigue, making it harder to run as much.

Impact On Anaerobic (Or Burst) Performance

Studies have shown that explosive performance also takes a noticeable decline at altitude.

Repetitive explosive power was shown to be sixteen percent lower at altitude than at sea level.

The effects of this for rugby are pretty clear. Rugby is a game that requires frequent bursts of maximum effort.

The lack of oxygen at altitude is a very real disadvantage for players who are not prepared.

Impact Of Altitude On Rugby Skills

Skills were also found to suffer for low-altitude teams when at higher altitudes.

Studies show that when sea-level teams travel to play at altitude, they have a higher rate of missed tackles in the first half of the game. To compound that, they also score fewer points in the first half.

 In the second half, there were fewer gain line breaks by the teams. This may be due to the anaerobic issues we mentioned earlier that diminish explosive power. With fatigue also setting in during the second half, it’s not a surprise that players aren’t busting through tackles.

The home team in high-altitude games scores more, runs more, and functions significantly better across all the key performance indicators than a visiting team from low altitude.

How Do Professional Teams Prepare for Altitude? 

For the teams from low-altitude areas, all is not lost. There are several ways that a player can make themselves more physically able to handle the rigors of high-altitude matches. 

There are two commonly used methods in use by professional rugby teams:

  • Live High-Train Low(LHTL)
  • Sprint training in hypoxia (low oxygen levels in the blood)

I’ll explain each of these in the next sections. But I’ll mention now that most training regimes will include a mix of both these methods

Live High-Train Low (LHTL) For Rugby

LHTL has three phases. First, the players stay at a high elevation for a period of time.

Then they travel down to a lower elevation to train at maximum effort.

After a period of training, they then immediately return to high altitudes to recover.

The reason for these phases is to allow the players to give an absolute maximum effort while training.

You may be wondering why the training is at a lower level. This is the altitude that the sea-level players are comfortable with, so they can train most effectively.

Adaptation

After the training phase, players immediately get back to high altitude where they can get all the adaptation benefits of being at altitude. They reap the benefits while recovering from that hard training.

A minimum time for adaptation is two weeks, with four weeks being optimal.

Hypoxic Training

Hypoxia means having low oxygen levels in your blood. This can happen at high altitudes.

Hypoxic sprint training involves repeated sprints with very short rests where the player is in a state of hypoxia.

The purpose of this form of training is to improve players’ explosive efforts when playing at high altitudes.

Altitude Camps

It is not uncommon for professional teams to set up “altitude camps” when they know they have a tourney coming up that will have them playing at high altitudes.

These camps have the players training at a comfortable altitude, then quickly hopping into a cable car or auto to get them back up to high altitude as fast as possible!

The camps will include hypoxic training incorporated into the LHTL protocol.

The professional teams invest in altitude camps because their own studies show them to be effective. Those studies aren’t public. But players themselves say that they experience real improvement in all areas when it comes time for them to play a match at higher altitude.

This includes long-term aerobic endurance throughout the match and anaerobic endurance during bursts of intense effort. It also includes cognitive and skill improvements.

This all makes sense because if you are less tired, you are going to play better!

Sources

This article is based on a study on performance in South Africa. It’s a very technical article, so I’ve tried to put it into plainer language here.