It's about right altitude

It's about right altitude

It's about right altitude

The 32 teams participating in the World Cup from June 11 to July 11 will be faced with tactical decisions about altitude as well as soccer. Matches at  7 of the 10 stadiums in South Africa will be played at elevations ranging from 2,165 feet in the agricultural hub of Nelspruit to higher than a mile in Johannesburg.

Approaches to acclimation seem to vary as widely as playing styles. The United States has begun training at Princeton University, altitude 98 feet. England will head to a camp in Austria at an altitude of about 2,400 feet, and Italy will soon gather at the ski resort of Sestriere at nearly 6,000 feet. Some teams, like South Korea and Japan, are considering tents and masks that simulate altitude conditions. Others (Australia, Argentina and Brazil) seem to be relying primarily on a natural adjustment to the elevation by arriving in South Africa about three weeks before their opening matches.

Little research has been done on preparing soccer teams for playing at altitude. The effects of altitude can vary from individual to individual. Jiri Dvorak, the chief medical officer for FIFA said in February that altitude “was not an issue which will significantly impact on the players’ health or performance.” Yet, teams clearly think it will be a factor. Even FIFA’s officially licensed World Cup video game takes altitude into account. Preparing will be an inexact science, experts said. “If you look at altitude experts with experience with footballers, you have less than a handful,” said Michael Davison, a director of the London Altitude Centre, which is advising England and several other teams. “When teams look for advice to FIFA, it says the altitude issue doesn’t exist. They can’t let teams come back and say, ‘We’ve had two or three group games at altitude and this other team had one.' It has to be seen as a level playing field.”

Ultimately, most teams will not be acclimating under optimal conditions, altitude experts said. Rather they will attempt to strike a balance between rigorous skill and fitness training, team building, playing warm-up matches at home and adjusting to the thinner air at the South African stadiums (except those along the coast in Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth). The United States will play all of its first-round matches at altitude – against England on June 12 in Rustenburg (4,920 feet, or 1,500 meters); against Slovenia on June 18 in Johannesburg (5,750 feet, or 1,753 meters) and against Egypt on June 23 in Pretoria (3,981 feet, or 1,214 meters). The Americans played in those three cities last June at the Confederations Cup. “The altitude wasn’t a huge factor,” midfielder Landon Donovan said. “As the tournament went on, it was easier.”  The United States considered a pre-World Cup training camp at altitude in Europe. After consulting with the US Olympic Committee, though, the Americans decided to train for two weeks on the East Coast at or near sea level. They will play exhibition matches in Hartford and Philadelphia, then leave for South Africa on May 30.

The benefit of sea-level workouts is that athletes can train hard and recover quickly. At higher altitudes, where the atmospheric pressure is lower and the air is less dense, oxygen molecules are farther apart and more difficult to breathe into the vascular system. “In order to build a good base of fitness, hard work is best accomplished without being at altitude,” said Bob Bradley, the US coach. “You need to be at levels where you can push it and recover properly.”

On May 31, the US team will arrive at its base camp, at about 4,755 feet, or 1,450 meters, between Johannesburg and Pretoria. The Americans will have nearly two weeks to adjust to the altitude – the minimum period required for effective acclimating, said Randy Wilber, a senior physiologist with the USOC and an altitude expert who is advising the team.

In a soccer match, players can run from six to eight and a half miles. The effects of altitude lead to faster heart rates, less oxygen in the bloodstream and reduced power. An athlete participating in the US-England match without first adjusting to altitude could experience a reduction of performance of 10 percent, according to the London Altitude Centre.

Arriving in South Africa early should allow a player to perform more efficiently in thinner air as the body begins to produce more oxygen-carrying red blood cells and as changes occur in respiratory capacity, Wilber said. In South Africa, US considered using the “live high, train low” method popular with distance runners. The theory is that athletes receive the oxygen-boosting benefits of resting and sleeping at altitude and the maximum-capacity workouts possible near sea level. But this plan would have required players to be on a bus four or five hours a day, Wilber said, risking their recovery time and morale.
Some teams have curious strategies. France will have its base near sea level in South Africa, which could “dissipate all of the altitude training effect” the team will gain earlier at the French ski resort of Tignes, Davison said. The Southern Hemisphere winter and low humidity could also affect performance in South Africa. Some teams are expected to place humidifiers in players’ rooms and to provide flu shots. But things could be worse. At least the World Cup is not being held in Bolivia, a hellish place for visiting soccer teams at an altitude above 11,000 feet. “It’s not La Paz,” Bradley said thankfully.

New York Times News Service