The squad first began altitude training when they assembled for the pre-tour camp in Jersey
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
The British and Irish Lions players will aim to go into the first Test against South Africa as the fittest squad to have worn the red jersey by continuing to train in simulated high-altitude conditions – equivalent to over two miles above sea level – even though the entire Test series will now be played at Cape Town.
The Lions’ conditioning programme, which includes the use of masks that reduce the amount of oxygen that players breathe in while doing short, high-intensity bursts on watt bikes, had been designed to prepare the players for the original schedule of playing the second and third Tests in Johannesburg, which is 5,751ft above sea level.
To prepare, the Lions players have been training in conditions equivalent to over twice that altitude – 11,500ft – and higher than the highest mountain in South Africa, and over three times the height of Table Mountain.
Paul “Bobby” Stridgeon, the Lions head of strength and coaching, revealed that the decision to continue with the altitude training, even though the Test series had been switched to sea level because Covid rates of infection and the civil unrest in Johannesburg, had resulted in significant fitness gains.
“We are in great shape,” Stridgeon told Telegraph Sport. “We are taking a lot of confidence from the work we have put in. Training is intense – short rest periods and working hard – and we feel we’re in a really great position physically.
“We have been able to peak for the first Test on Saturday by reducing the volume this week but keeping the intensity high because of all the hard work that is in the bank, all the conditioning work that we have done. We will then be able to maintain that for the second and third Tests, both mentally and physically.”
The squad first began altitude training when they assembled for the pre-tour camp in Jersey, while some players also did work in altitude chambers at home.
Each ‘station’, which Stridgeon describes as the size of an old TV, would allow two players to do their work on a watt bike, each using their own mask and tube to ensure it was Covid-safe as well.
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“In the first week in Jersey, we did four sessions early in the morning in groups of 10," added Stridgeon, now on his fourth tour. "It involved a six-second sprint, followed by a 24-second rest. Six in a set and we did three sets with a two-minute rest. It was only 12 minutes in total but there’s a lot of research about how it helps improve performance not only at altitude but at sea level as well.
“Every middle-distance or endurance runner will do some form of altitude training. So it doesn’t matter to us whether we play at altitude or not. We have prepared for altitude so we would be in good shape for that but coming down to sea level now means we are in even better shape.
“We recorded power output on the first and last reps on the watt bike. We also recorded blood/oxygen levels using a pulse oximeter, which goes on the finger, and rate of perceived exertion.
“We found that by doing the work at altitude, the decrement between the power output between the first and sixth rep has narrowed so we are significantly better off than we were when we started. The blood/oxygen levels have improved throughout the session.
“We did a bit in Johannesburg, which is at 1,700 metres above sea level, but we actually trained at 3,500 metres. The plan was to do one or two maintenance sessions in Cape Town before we went back up, but we have decided to keep doing them because of the extra benefits we will get at sea level. I would have to say we are probably in better shape than we were in 2017.”
That the Lions will go into the first Test with their lowest-ever injury rate – Finn Russell (Achilles) is the only player who was unavailable – is a tribute to the combined work with the medical, physio and sports science teams and the fact that the players have been able to put more time into recovery work given the lack of travel compared to previous tours, because of the Covid-affected schedule.
“On the last tour of New Zealand we stayed in something crazy like 10 hotels in the first 16 days, we had to cope with jetlag and all the travelling," Stridgeon adds. "This time we have been able to spend much more time on recovery work and rest.
“And this is the most professional group of players I have been involved with on a Lions tour. I am not just saying that to make them feel good. The players self-manage themselves so well. The prehabilitation work before sessions and great recovery after has helped reduce the injuries.
“You never want to tempt fate but normally by this stage we would have to have replaced a few players by now. We have been astounded by it. We have got to the first Test in a good place.”