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Focus on altitude acclimatisation

The French have been biking through the snow-capped Alpine resort of Tignes. The Italians have been sprinting in Sestriere, the posh enclave that hosted skiing events for the 2006 Winter Olympics.

india Updated: Jun 02, 2010 00:59 IST

The French have been biking through the snow-capped Alpine resort of Tignes. The Italians have been sprinting in Sestriere, the posh enclave that hosted skiing events for the 2006 Winter Olympics.

And England, at least for a time, pondered whether its players should sleep in specially designed low-oxygen tents.

All three have won a World Cup. And in pursuit of another title, their national soccer teams have taken extraordinary measures to gird for the nearly mile-high climes of South Africa altitudes that can affect athletes’ energy, mental acuity and recovery time.

Of the nine South African cities hosting World Cup matches this summer, five are at 4,000 feet or higher. Johannesburg, is the highest among them, at 5,750 feet.

In the case of the United States, all three of its first-round matches are at 4,000 feet or higher, where the effects of altitude will come into play.

“It’s more of a headache for the coaches than athletes,” Pierre Barrieu, the US team’s fitness coach, said.

The competitive complication is this: As the altitude gets higher, the concentration of oxygen in the air decreases. Oxygen supplies energy to the body’s cells. As a result, the body works harder to keep those cells fed. The breathing rate increases, and the production of oxygen-transporting red blood cells increases.

“Being at altitude whether it’s low, moderate or high obviously you have less oxygen available,” Barrieu said, “and a simple task becomes harder.”

Among well conditioned soccer players, even the slightest impairment whether a reaction that’s a millisecond slow or a barely perceptible fall-off in foot speed can turn a match.

Like England, the US also considered using sleeping tents that replicate the concentration of oxygen at various altitudes. While the science is sound, opinion differs about how many hours an athlete must spend in the tent to get maximum benefit.

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