Dr Brian Cunniffe: The science behind training the Lions for altitude

The Lions’ sports scientist, Dr Brian Cunniffe, from Roscommon, has worked on two previous tours, to Australia in 2013 and New Zealand four years ago
Dr Brian Cunniffe: The science behind training the Lions for altitude

Lions players taking part in altitude training, a protocol developed by their sports scientist, Brian Cunniffe, from Roscommon. Picture: Dan Sheridan

If the British & Irish Lions are to prevail in this fiercely contested series against the Springboks, victory is the bottom line in the third and final Test at Cape Town Stadium this Saturday.

And for all the improvements required by Warren Gatland after a desperately disappointing second Test performance that saw the world champions level the series at one apiece with a 27-9 victory, the head coach can remain absolutely confident in his players’ ability to stay the course from a conditioning perspective.

The Lions may have come up short in a number of performance areas last Saturday but fitness is not one of them. The tourists’ decision to continue aspects of training as if they were still at altitude, as they were in Johannesburg at the start of the tour, rather than sea level in Cape Town, could be a significant factor in at least ticking that box.

When you see paramedics placing an oxygen mask on a patient, it is to increase the supply but for the Lions on this tour, and in the weeks before leaving for South Africa and more than two weeks on the Highveld, those masks spell the opposite.

It has been part of the routine for the Lions since they gathered together in mid-June at their initial camp on the island of Jersey, the repeated spring hypoxia (hypoxia is another word for altitude) sessions on stationary watt bikes wearing masks that reduce the oxygen content reaching the lungs to simulate training at altitude.

It is a protocol tailored for the tour by the Lions’ sports scientist, Dr Brian Cunniffe, from Roscommon, who has worked on two previous tours, to Australia in 2013 and New Zealand four years ago.

Cunniffe graduated from the University of Limerick, completed his master’s in nutrition at Loughborough University and then a PhD in physiology at the University of South Wales. The results of his work so far on the tour have been received, if not entirely enjoyed, by the players.

“It’s absolutely hanging, to be fair,” Test hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie said, “but we’re definitely seeing benefits from it. Coming from altitude down to sea level you definitely feel a bit fitter. It’s definitely working... you’ve always got to have a bit of hard graft in the week and the altitude (training) is hard graft.”

Gatland also appreciates the benefits to his players. “To get conditioned from a running issue, you’ve got to be doing some extras and top-ups,” the Lions boss said following the first Test. “We’ve been doing that throughout the whole tour. Guys have been up at 7am doing the RSH, which is the altitude bike sessions in groups. We’ve kept all the stats on that and presented that to the players on Thursday in terms of the improvement we’ve had from Jersey to where we are now.

“We’ve had a massive improvement in those scores. We’ve worked really hard in terms of the training sessions at the start of the tour. I explained to the guys that I was trying to put them in a state of fatigue.

“I wasn’t allowing much rest time. I was trying to stress them in terms of their decision-making and skills under pressure so when we came to Test weeks, we were hopefully a lot calmer and had got used to the pressure that would happen in an international match. During the Test week, you have some hard training sessions but it’s quite hard to top-up from a conditioning point of view.”

Cunniffe told the Irish Examiner his plan was to turn the perception of altitude as a negative into a positive, even if the process begins by placing the players under duress. He likens it to a car with a blocked air filter — eventually, you have to pull over and seek roadside assistance but the human body adapts to the oxygen deprivation.

“When you travel to South Africa there’s always a bit of a preamble around altitude and that can be quite a distraction and therefore it does become a challenge,” Cunniffe said.

“We wanted to make sure with this tour, the first goal was to reframe altitude as an opportunity to enhance rather than detract.”

The aim in Jersey was to prime the players for playing at 1,750m above sea level in Johannesburg and Pretoria in the early tour games, then to continue on arrival in preparation for the Test series, with the RSH sessions at 3,500m via the masks, and down again to Cape Town, all the while reducing both the magnitude and the duration of that stress being experienced.

“The goal for that was always with the business end of the tour in mind, the last three games, irrespective of whether the games occurred at altitude or not and it’s why we have continued that protocol here. The bottom line for us is making sure that we’ve optimally prepared our players as best we can and we feel they’re in a good place.

“Fitness isn’t the be all and end all but it’s a significant piece in the performance puzzle and without it you can’t win.”

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