Study aims to boost rugby players' prowess

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09 Mar 2016

Canterbury's three tertiary institutions and a university in the United Kingdom are teaming up to find out if high altitude training can boost the performance of rugby players.

The study, led by Lincoln University Associate Professor Mike Hamlin, involves measuring the physiological and psychological changes that occur after 20 young Christchurch rugby players take a course of simulated high altitude training.

The research is a collaboration between Lincoln University, CPIT Aoraki, the University of Canterbury and the University of Essex (UK).

Associate Professor Hamlin says that when athletes train at high altitudes, the extra stress induced by the decreased supply of oxygen to the body has been shown to build stamina over time, leading to significantly improved performance on the sports field.

"In this study, we have decided to focus on rugby, with a view to helping answer some questions around whether training could be used in the build-up to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, particularly for the rugby sevens players, but also players of other team sports like field hockey," he says.

"For rugby sevens players to excel at the sport, they need to be able to handle short bursts of fast sprinting over and over again.

"Repeated sprint training alone has been shown to improve team sport players' ability, but we want to see if performance gets even better when altitude training is added to the mix.

"Preseason repetitive sprint training can be carried out on stationery bikes to get the players off their feet, which helps to reduce the lower leg impact early in the season."

Research on the sporting benefits of altitude training is not new, but little is known about the effectiveness of repetitive sprint training in addition to altitude training.

Associate Professor Hamlin wants to find out whether rugby players' repeated sprint training speed and ability can be improved with the addition of oxygen deficiency (known as hypoxia).

His study also seeks to discover how much hypoxia should be induced for best results and the number of preseason altitude training sessions that need to take place to maximise the benefits.

The research participants have undergone an initial two-week series of tests at sea level to evaluate their performance, followed by three weeks of repeated sprint training on stationery bikes under hypoxia (altitude), which is induced through the use of oxygen masks worn by the subjects.

"Their heart rate is monitored, along with blood oxygenation levels, as well as subjective rating of perceived exertion, and the players' daily exercise levels and mood state changes," says Associate Professor Hamlin. "Each week, a urine sample is taken to investigate changes in psychophysiological stress and immune system function."

He says the psychophysiological stress and cardiovascular changes that occur with such a training intervention have not been studied previously, so the potential knowledge to be gained is highly significant.

The players' urine samples will be analysed at the University of Canterbury by members of Associate Professor Stevens Gieseg's laboratory.

"We originally developed the analysis to study injury and recovery in the Canterbury and Crusaders rugby team," says Associate Professor Gieseg. "The cutting-edge technology is now being applied to the strength and conditioning of the future athletes in this study."

CPIT Aoraki has provided funding for the study, which is the outcome of a long-term collaboration between UC and CPIT Aoraki, says CPIT Aoraki sports science lecturer Dr Peter Olsen, who is assisting the research team.

"Our current involvement comes from Professor Hamlin being an external reviewer for our Bachelor of Applied Science degree," Dr Olsen says.

"From this, Dr Helen Marshall and other colleagues and I have collaborated on student research projects, including publishing an article on Super Rugby performance at altitude and sea level in 2015.

"The current project is a continuation of that collaboration in terms of staff and student involvement and the funding of projects."

The University of Essex (UK) has contributed to the study protocols and, in particular, the design of the study.

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