world cup 2010 10 days

World Cup teams brace for altitude change as they head to South Africa

The U.S. team traveled to South Africa two weeks before its first match to acclimate.
The U.S. team traveled to South Africa two weeks before its first match to acclimate. (Fabrice Coffrini/agence-france Presse Via Getty Images)

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By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

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, where the June 11 opener and July 11 final will be contested, is the highest among them, at 5,750 feet. (The elevation of Denver is 5,280 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. The U.S. squad opens against England June 12 in Rustenburg (4,905 feet), and follows June 18 with a match against Slovenia at Johannesburg's Ellis Park and June 23 against Algeria in Pretoria (4,457 feet).

U.S. coaches considered basing their weeklong, pre-World Cup training camp in Austria, as Spain and the Netherlands, among others, chose to do.

After consulting with the U.S. Olympic Committee's altitude-training expert, they opted to base their camp in Princeton, N.J. -- essentially sea level -- but travel to South Africa two weeks before their first match to give athletes time to acclimate.

The decision required as much deliberation as any tactical, on-field formation -- based on a mixture of science, exercise physiology, psychology and pragmatism.

"It's more of a headache for the coaches -- for me -- than for the athletes," Pierre Barrieu, the U.S. team's fitness coach, said of the challenge of developing a plan to get the Americans in peak condition for their 12-day slog of matches in Group C and, ideally, beyond.

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."


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