Worrying heights? The ups and downs of football at altitude

The National Stadium in Brasilia is 1,172m above sea level; the highest altitude stadium in the World Cup. EPA/Robert Ghement

There is a rich and mixed history of playing football at altitudes above sea level, but at various stages in the past 15 years the Fédération International de Football Association (FIFA) has banned international matches played above an altitude of 2,500m.

The reasons given for the ban included avoiding potential health risks to players and also inequity for sea-level natives playing at altitude.

The anecdotal evidence supported sea-level natives being at a disadvantage, with clear examples of Bolivia beating Brazil three times in international matches played at La Paz in Bolivia at an altitude of 3,600m, or Bolivia’s 6-1 thumping of Argentina in 2009.

So how bad is playing at altitude for those not used to the conditions?

Football at high altitude

Colleagues and I last year published a comprehensive study on the effects of matches between sea-level natives and high-altitude natives at both sea level and at altitude.

Altitude reduced the running of players, but this was a variable response depending on which running aspect was examined and importantly true for both sea-level and altitude natives.

Of course, running in matches can be dependent on the relative skills of opposition players and skills, but physiological responses in this study were also telling.

Cameroon training at the National Stadium ahead of their match against Brazil. EPA/Shawn Thew

Sea-level natives had decreased sleep quality, and disordered breathing during sleep, which would have severely compromised recovery between matches or training sessions.

The sea-level natives also coped less well with a submaximal exercise task (in this case, running). All up, altitude affected those from sea-level and life-long residents of altitude, but it was worse for sea-level natives.

Football at lower altitudes

Of course this current World Cup is not being played at high altitude, but rather at low altitudes. The highest matches played will be around 1,200m above sea level at the National Stadium in Brasilia. The obvious question is will these low altitudes be sufficient to affect the outcome of matches?

The main performance decrement expected with football at altitude is the capacity of players to perform repeated fast or hard actions. These actions include sprinting or getting away from an opponent. These are often related to decisive events in matches such as scoring, a rare event in football World Cups.

While not well researched, there is enough evidence to suggest that low altitudes can also reduce running in matches.

In matches 1,600m above sea level, faster running was reduced compared to matches at sea level. Even low altitudes reduce the capacity of footballers to fuel the many high intensity efforts required during matches.

In something of a double-whammy hit, it is likely the fittest athletes that will suffer the most, as they are most susceptible to altitude-induced reductions in oxygen carried in the blood.

The decrements are likely to be between 3 and 10% at altitude between 500 and 1,100m. While this doesn’t sound like much, no team wants their athletes to start a competition up to 10% down physically.

England training at Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte (800m altitude) prior to their match with Costa Rica. EPA/Dennis M. Sabangan

How to prepare for football at low altitudes

Compared to individual sports such as cycling or swimming, not much is known about altitude training and footballers. While on the surface it is hard to believe, there are enough similarities between cycling and football to use this research.

Both sports require lots of hard effort and substantial time moving more slowly. In both sports it is the really hard efforts that influence the outcome of competition.

So taking a broader view of the existing literature, we know that the following methods might help footballers play at altitude:

  • the most popular method is living and training at altitude, or more commonly going to altitude for a training camp. This is the preferred option, but costs a lot of money, and takes a lot of time
  • footballers could also do intermittent sprint or interval training using simulated altitude or even just sleep at altitude.

Each of the training techniques above will help footballers prepare for competition at altitude. Like any training, though, none of these techniques give guaranteed results.

Some teams try to win the World Cup. Others, such as Australia, just want to do well. Regardless, if you are playing football at altitude, then you must prepare as well as possible, and this should include altitude training.