Altitude’s contribution to England Rugby’s defeat by South Africa

All of the post-match analysis that I have read/heard about this weekend’s rugby test in South Africa has been focused on South Africa’s speed and England’s indiscipline. There is another likely contributory factor that deserves an honourable mention – altitude.

Johannesburg is at 1700m above sea-level, sufficient altitude to have a negative impact on performance if you are not adapted. In a stop/start game like rugby you can start at a high intensity just as at sea level but you will be accumulating more oxygen debt compared to at sea level for the same effort. At some point this catches up with you in the later stages when performance will start to drop off. Fatigue and hence being slower to the ball typically causes sides to give away more penalties. Starting to sound familiar?

What to do about it? There are basically two strategies to performing at altitude. Adapt by living/training at altitude for long enough or arrive and compete straight away. Throw in to the mix that different players respond to hypoxic (low oxygen) training in different ways and you can see why England went for the second option, no doubt judging that being able to train at their home base in Pennyhill outweighed the benefits of being altitude adapted. I’m also curious about whether England considered using a ‘sleep high’ strategy while training at sea level i.e. sleeping in altitude tents.

The second test in a week’s time will be interesting. Will it have been enough time at altitude to have a noticeable impact on England’s performance at the lower altitude (1400m) venue of Bloemfontein?