There’s not many away trips that are longer in sport than Scottish teams having to head to South Africa to play a league game.

Edinburgh have had to make the trip twice over the last six weeks and now it’s the turn of Glasgow Warriors as they head to South Africa to take on the Bulls and the Lions in a double-header that will have a big impact on their season.

The record of visiting URC teams in South Africa shows just how difficult it is to play there with the weather,  humidity and altitude all factors for teams to cope with. 

It’s expected to be 27 degrees when Glasgow take to the field on Saturday against  The Bulls in Pretoria. The city also sits more than 4,000 feet above sea level meaning the altitude could affect things.

And that’s why Glasgow Warriors have spent the last eight weeks behind the scenes preparing their players with a series of exercises.

Senior athletic performance coach Liam Walshe has had a big role to play, although he tries to play down his role during our chat about what he’s been doing to prepare the players.

He credits David Jackson - a former pro who retired in 2013 due to a brain injury, and has become an expert in breathing techniques - with bringing the issue to his attention. 

Jackson was brought into Glasgow to discuss return-to-play protocols and Walshe struck up a conversation with him about South Africa. 

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Speaking to Scotland Rugby News, Walshe said: “It was just fortuitous we had David Jackson come through about 12 weeks ago and I was speaking to him and said ‘look we’re about to go into this prep block’.

"Previously we haven’t tried to focus too much on it because our other South Africa trips have been one game at altitude.

“At that stage we’re living low, we’re not going to be training at altitude and just going to play at altitude. At that stage with the cost benefit of it, we said no. We’ll just focus on training and the controllables.

“But this time we’re going to be staying high, we’re going to be playing high so we want to go ‘let’s get used to this as much as we can’. The stuff he’s talked us through is fantastic.

“Then it was ‘what can we implement?’ ‘What strategies have you seen for simulating altitude?’ And through that myself and Michael Clark – our return-to-play physio – have worked on a strategy that he [Jackson] proposes and the evidence proposes could be effective.”

There’s nothing "fortuitous" about the amount of work Walshe was putting in behind the scenes. 

The passion with which he explained the benefits of the exercises and the challenges of altitudes showed how much detail has gone in to prepare Glasgow for a vital trip. 

To put it simply - as he did for me - the body needs to get used to air that has less oxygen in it and not panic too much when there is more carbon dioxide reaching the brain.

So how does Walshe prepare the players for that? He sticks them on a bike and they go at full speed for eight seconds, they then let out all the air from their lungs and go again for eight seconds while trying their best not to breathe in and get oxygen.

It’s then their recovery over the next 22 seconds that gives them the skills needed to deal with the altitude.

Explaining the process, he said: “If we were a big national team in camp we could organise a lot of time in altitude chambers but logistically doing that with guys who are here four days a week is difficult.

“The approach we’ve taken this time is eight weeks out we’ve gone ‘okay, we’ll implement two or three big strands’.

“One, we’re going to work on breathing recovery strategies so guys can have active recovery skills when they are out there and naturally a bit out of breath when you’re playing at altitude. 

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“The second part we worked on was physiologically getting them used to having low blood oxygen saturations which is mimicking what they’ll achieve at altitude when the actual degree of oxygen saturation in your blood is lower. 

"We’ll do that through working through breath holds. We’ll exhale breath holds and then do a short sprint which will drop the blood saturation after about 30 seconds. 

"They’ll sprint for about 10 seconds then there’s a delayed effect of the blood oxygen saturation dropping then we’ll recover with nasal breathing.

“We’ll restrict their oxygen as they are doing bouts of exercise and force them to use the active recovery skills that we’ve worked on during that period."

Walshe said the third part of the process is psychologically preparing. 

He added: “That’s the three-pronged effect. Psychologically, physiologically, and then the skills to recover when we’re in a nasty place.”

One of the things that struck Walshe most when they began this preparation was how hard some of the fittest players in the team found it.

They started by doing five repetitions of the exercise and building it up to doing eight before a break and another eight. In the lead-up to flying to South Africa, they were doing 16 reps to improve their ability to deal with the altitude.

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He continued: “Intuitively you think the fit guys are going to be good at this and in week one or two the really fit guys were really struggling. It just showed it isn’t just aerobic fitness.  

“I’m not going to name names, but there’s guys in the squad you think ‘wow, they’re fit’ and they’re great in fitness tests and great on-pitch but doing this at the start they couldn’t make it through the seven or eight-second breath holds after one or two reps when we did the extended breath holds.

“We do them actively so we do them with a dumbbell march to incorporate them into the gym and target 15 to 18 seconds and they couldn’t hit 12 seconds.

"They’re now at the period where they’re hitting 20 seconds regularly on an active breath hold march. They’re easily hitting the eight seconds on the sprints and getting great outputs.

“At the start they said they felt like they were drowning there but now it’s fine coming off the bike and physiologically they are fine and more used to the environment.”

Altitude isn't the only issue for the travelling party to contend with. Walshe explained how the staff have been preparing for a long flight. 

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He added: “We’re lucky our guys have done these trips before so know what to expect. 

“We’ve got a great squad of professionals, boys at the peak of what I’ve seen them do. They look after themselves and recover and know what works for them.

"We give them travel packs in terms of snacks, supplements and stuff to fuel during that flight.

"We’ll encourage them to make sure they have zinc lozenges which help prevent picking up infections on the flight and making sure they bring an eye mask. 

“If there’s any sleep supplements you take then bring them, we’ll encourage guys to get up and move and wear compression garments. We’ve got a great squad of guys who have done this previously but also take on board the messages.”

Glasgow are in a great position on the field, and through the extensive preparation from Walshe and the backroom staff, the Warriors are in a good place off the field as they prepare for two vital games in South Africa.