England are counting down to their opening World Championship clash with the Iroquois Nationals on Friday but their first opponents are the heat and altitude of Denver. Danny Buckland sampled the conditions for an insight into what the players will go through on game day.
It was a gentle jog. An ultra smooth treadmill, set up to monitor the cadence and vitals of Olympic athletes such as Mo Farah, whirred away as I took the first paces of a gruelling encounter with altitude.
Denver glories in its Mile High City status and we’ve all heard about kickers nailing field goals in American Football from ridiculous distance because of the thin air.
But the effect on a football is vastly different from the impact on athletic ability as Matt Bagley’s boys and other teams are finding out as they train and scrimmage in Colorado this week where temperatures hit 100F.
I was in the altitude chamber at St. Mary’s University, in Twickenham, London, for a session in a glass-panelled suite that soon became a torture chamber.
The only other sound apart from the treadmill was the occasional hiss from five strategically positioned sprinkler heads that were pumping nitrogen into the controlled atmosphere. The St. Mary’s team kindly added 5% to reduce the oxygen availability to simulate Denver game time.
A monitor was clipped onto my right index finger that showed I was getting 98% available oxygen – exercising in the chamber reduced that abruptly to 83%. Not a ruinous drop, but a crucial one that gathered impetus as the session continued.
At 10k per hour, it was a comfortable run and, even though I started sweating very quickly, the workload was manageable. At 10 minutes, my heart rate was behaving well and my blood lactate levels – a critical performance factor that shows how the muscles are functioning under restricted oxygen availability – were nothing to write home about.
So, physiologist and technician Colin Towey – a Gaelic footballer and therefore probably having an inbuilt masochistic streak – tweaked the speed to 11k. The pace was no problem but after three minutes, the effects were.
A running style modelled on that purring Ferrari of athletes, Seb Coe, started to deteriorate to a more of a late night stumble down Deansgate.
Form out the window, it was the breathing that went next. The measured pattern was not enough, I needed a huge gulp of air every 3rd or 4th breath to compensate and that feeling of being out of rhythm was psychologically disconcerting as well as physically destructive.
I expected the session to be a difficult physical test but did not anticipate the mental corrosion. It was as though extra brain power was needed to ensure everything from footfall through knees, hips and shoulders stayed on the rails and that, of course, will impact on decision-making. Near the end of those ten minutes, it felt like handling the ball under pressure would be a mammoth task. It was enough just staying upright.
Now, I’m nowhere near the athletic ability of the England squad and my advancing years were clearly a factor, but it was illuminating that these conditions can affect your game playing smarts.
Colin took another pinch of blood and checked my heart rate before returning the treadmill to a sedate 10k for the final ten minutes. But, although the pace relaxed, the churn on my body did not.
The legs became heavier and I had to repeatedly lower my gaze to confirm basic running technique was functioning. The thirst became unbearable – the kind you might get if you were a Foreign Legionnaire in the Sahara Desert…buried up to your neck…on the longest day of the year!
Again, it was surprise that the debilitating consequences continued despite the lowering pace – for five minutes it felt like I was nearing the end of a half-marathon. Heavy legs, lolling head, struggling for breath and desperate for drink and nutrition to get me over the line.
But the body did stabilise and recover.
Colin gave me the statistical shocks: the heart rate of 120 for the first 10 minutes was fine; the 170 rate at the end of the next 10 was not. My lactate values had almost doubled to a point close to where he would have considered shutting down the experiment. The good? My body recovered well and my heart rate quickly came back to 140.
But I wanted to find out if the body does adapt with training so back to St. Mary’s for another session. Exercise physiologist Paul Hough looked at the data and chuckled: “I see the second 10 minutes caused some disruption.” A powerful understatement of a test that reduce me to running like Woody from Toy Story.
Session 2 followed the template of No. 1 with a very difficult middle period when the rate was upped. But I did feel stronger and more in control.
Paul explained what happened: “The normal oxygen content of air at sea level is 21% but you were in a chamber where it was 16.2% which simulates being at altitude, where the lower pressure reduces oxygen availability” he said.
“When we took the speed up a bit, we got quite a pronounced jump in your heart rate because your cardiovascular system had to work harder to deliver the oxygen it required.
“But we know from the data that this was not solely caused by cardiovascular drift –the gradual rising of body temperature and loss of water through sweat during exercise. Your blood lactate levels went up because the muscles did not have enough oxygen and it meant that you were beginning to work anaerobically rather than aerobically.”
Basically, my body was under the strain of a sprinter’s duress – without producing the speed – during a training run.
“The good thing is that when we dropped the speed, your heart rate came down and your blood lactate levels also dropped,” added Paul. “The body does get used to the rigours of altitude, but this takes time and it can be a bit of a shock at first.”
After both sessions, I felt like the morning after a two-game day before but a few days later did feel physically stronger so, even after a couple of sessions, the body can adapt.
It is clear that the England squad, with its structured training programme and sport science approach to acclimatisation, will take most of the ‘Denver danger’ in their stride.
But it will be a factor. Close games could balance on which team has adapted the best. A missed step on a ride or clear, a loose pass at the end of prolonged possession or a poor shooting option could be down to the cumulative affect of performing at an alien altitude.
Rising to the Mile High occasion will be a matter of skill, drill and will.
- With thanks to The St Mary’s Clinic at St. Mary’s University http://www.smuc.ac.uk/clinic/