Researching soccer at altitude

Sport scientists have completed the first comprehensive study into the effects of high altitude on soccer players.

In a major multinational study, researchers measured the running performance, health and sleeping patterns of Australian u/17 soccer team ‘the Joeys’ and Bolivian u/20 team ‘the Strongest’ from La Paz during a five match series in Bolivia.

The teams played two games over five days in Santa Cruz, at 430m altitude, then three games over the next 12 days in La Paz, at 3,600m altitude.

Victoria University’s Associate Professor Rob Aughey said GPS match data, sprint tests, blood samples, resting health checks and sleep monitoring data were all recorded to gain a clear picture of what was happening physically as both groups played, travelled and rested at different altitudes.

“While FIFA and other sporting bodies have been debating the health and fairness issues of playing matches at altitude for years, those discussions have not been based on much evidence,” he said. “Through this project we’re providing that crucial evidence on which future decisions can be based.”

The data collected in Bolivia showed moving to high altitude reduced the distance covered by all players during matches and that neither 13 days of acclimatisation, nor lifelong residence at high altitude protected against this decrease in performance.

Researchers also found exposure to high altitude caused acute and chronic disruption to the sleep of players who were sea-level natives, but did not affect the sleep of players who were high-altitude natives.

“This finding is significant as sleep is the number one recovery tool for any athlete, but here we saw that even after two weeks of acclimatisation, half the Australian players suffered disturbed breathing and disrupted sleeping patterns,” Associate Professor Aughey said.

Blood tests showed that while the Australians slowly increased oxygen levels in their blood the longer they spent at altitude, two weeks was not long enough for them to fully adapt.

“This study doesn’t spell out the optimal strategy for soccer teams playing at altitude, but it certainly dispels the myth you can fly in and fly out without acclimatising and expect to perform at full capacity,” he said.

These findings have already led to seven academic papers in the leading British Journal of Sports Medicine with more to come as data is analysed. Results have also been delivered to FIFA and other peak sporting bodies for consideration.

Associate Professor Aughey said the project’s success relied on strong professional networks between collaborators and support from the two head coaches.

“Other researchers in the altitude field have tried similar projects and failed due to communication breakdowns, logistical issues and unmet expectations,” he said.

“For us to pull such a massive project off with so much rich data has been a major achievement and a credit to all involved.”

Other project leaders included Professor Chris Gore from the Australian Institute of Sport, Professor Walter Schmidt from the University of Bayreuth in Germany, Dr Pitre Bourdon from Aspire Academy in Qatar and Associate Professor Greg Roach from Central Queensland University.

This is one of 20 collaborative research projects featured in the latest Research Highlights publication.

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