Prepping for the World Cup

The 2014 World Cup is ready to kick-off. Four years of preparation for an event that demands players pay a heavy physical and psychological price for success. As fans and coaches, we’re excited when our team overachieves and secures unexpected points and advances to the next round. Unfortunately we’ve often seen our side underperform. They seem listless and lethargic for no particular reason, making rare and uncommon mistakes. Matches that should be easily won turn into losses. This is especially true during the critical times when multiple matches are played within a short span of time. Teams have trained on every aspect of the game and they are fit and ready to play. But is there something else needed for a team to play well? As it turns out, what teams do off the field and behind the scenes can impact success. On the Science of Soccer Online, we have talked about a congested calendar, recovery and refueling. In this post, I’d like to us the World Cup as a framework to briefly summarize four key issues: how diet, recovery, sleep and daily hassles can play critical roles in improving or undermining performance during the match. Links are included for additional info.

Fitness, technical and tactical abilities are clearly keys to winning in Brazil. However, matches can also be won or lost off the field. What should players expect when playing such a congested schedule? Each match requires a tremendous physical effort. During 2010, US midfielder Michael Bradley averaged ~8 miles per match sprinting, running, jogging and walking. Add to that, stops, starts, turns and jumps and the energy cost of a single match is quite high. If they make the finals, Brazil will play seven matches in 32 days. Belgium (Group H) would play seven matches in 27 days. To make things tougher, there are only three days of recovery between some matches. This is certainly the case as teams work their way through the knockout rounds on the way to the championship match. Given the physical demands and schedules faced, it will be important for teams think ahead in order to quickly recover and prepare for upcoming matches. This will help avoid injury and illness as well as performance.

Diet and Hydration: What types of foods and beverages should players eat and drink during the tournament? We’ve talked at length on the SSO and through the NSCAA about the need for high carbohydrates, about 60-70% of total calories. This remains true for the duration of the tournament – . However, given the amount of muscle damage that is likely to occur with repeated matches, it is also important to add additional protein to the daily diet. Pre-match suggestions hold true – a high carbohydrate meal 3-4 hours before kick off followed by high carbohydrate snacks as kick off approaches. The post-match recovery diet will be critically important. Players need to eat and drink plenty of carbohydrates soon after the final whistle. The key is the first 45-60 minutes – take in plenty of high carbohydrate foods and beverages along with a small amount of protein will “jump start” the recovery of muscle glycogen.

The climate in Brazil means that proper hydration will play center stage in the tournament. Because of the high temperatures, players will lose considerable amounts of fluid along with key minerals and electrolytes. Not only can dehydration affect performance, it can cause serious health issues and raise the risk of injury. Players should drink before, during (when possible) and after the match or training. Fluids need to be replaced on a daily basis. The rule of thumb is to drink 1.5 times the amount of fluid lost during the activity. Sports drinks can provide fluids, carbohydrates and minerals lost during training and matches.

Many players enjoy a cold beer or two after a match. There’s probably a psychological and social aspect to relaxing and having a beer with teammates. However, too much alcohol, especially liquor can increase muscle soreness and inhibit recover of muscle glycogen.

Recovery: Apart from the diet, what is the best way to physically recover from a match? There is no doubt that the intensity of the match will leave players with delayed onset muscle soreness. To limit soreness, a post-match cool down is essential. Also, light exercises the following day can help alleviate muscle soreness.

Two other strategies that we’ve discussed are ice baths and compression garments. Research into ice baths and massages is a bit confusing. Ice is thought to reduce muscle inflammation and massages are designed to stimulate blood flow and promote relaxation of sore muscles. Studies show differing results ranging from no effect to modest effects on soreness and subsequent performance. Much of the benefit of these treatments may be psychological, reducing the perception of pain rather than actually “healing” the muscle. Perhaps the mental relaxation of a massage alleviates the discomfort. In no case has research shown adverse effects of ice baths and massage. So, while the benefits may be small, there is certainly no harm.

Compression garments are often used by players during a match to improve performance and limit muscle injury risk. Worn after a match, compression garments may offer some benefit by preventing muscle pooling. They could be particularly effective on a long plane flight or bus ride after a match. As with ice and massage, the research is not conclusive regarding positive effects but show no ill effects. So, it’s reasonable to suggest that players use compression garments and err on the side of a positive effect.

Analgesics are one of the most prescribed medications at previous World Cups. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory compounds like ibuprofen, aspirin and acetaminophen are commonly used to combat muscle soreness and other mild discomforts. We’ve warned against relying too heavily on these drugs as they may mask a serious, underlying injury. Hopefully each team has a competent medical staff that can evaluate minor aches and pains and prescribe proper treatment rather than players self-medicating themselves.

We’ve also talked previously about the use of antioxidants to combat muscle soreness. While these offer some support for recovery, they may blunt a training effect. It’s important to note that athletes at the World Cup are not in training during competition – it’s too late to make major improvements in fitness. Thus, use of antioxidant vitamin supplements may be beneficial in limiting muscle damage and soreness during the tournament without impacting fitness. Vitamin supplements are also recommended to avoid possible dietary deficiencies due to varied eating patterns, training, match and travel schedules that could lead to illness.

Rest and Sleep: Part of the recovery process in sleep. Both sleep quality and quantity can affect performance. And, the schedule of events, travel and training can impact sleep. Travel, especially across multiple time zones often disrupts sleep patterns. In the case of the Brazil World Cup, most matches will be played in a single time zone. Only two venues lie in a different zone. So, time changes should not be a major problem. However, distance and time spent travelling can be an issue. The US will log nearly 9,000 miles flying between group-stage matches in Sao Paulo, Natal, Manaus and Recife. Research has shown that as the distance traveled increases, sleep as well as physical and mental performance can be impacted. This is especially true when discussing home field advantage. Since all teams will be travelling and there are no true home venues (except for Brazil), it will be interesting to see if travel and sleep patterns affect one team more than another.

Daily Hassles: Daily hassles are those small disruptions to your day – issues that crop up and have to be dealt with. Travel is a major daily hassle. Packing and unpacking, unfamiliar surroundings, different dining patters all create frustrations. Add to that meetings with the press, communicating with family members, and treatment for injuries means that players can expect stress-filled days. As the number of daily hassles grows, performance decreases, mental focus suffers and injury risk increase. Add to that, variations in player psyche, and it’s easy to see how scheduling can affect the player. A key for the support staff of each team will be to limit these daily hassles and keep disruptions of the daily routine to a minimum.

Bottom Line: The fittest and more technically and talented team may not be the most likely to add a star the their nations badge. The Champions may be the team that performs best off the field. Those who are prepare properly behind the scenes to insure players are well fed and hydrated, undergo proper recovery, maintain set schedules and limit daily distractions may be the sides that challenge for the trophy. Remember, failing to prepare properly can distract and disrupt even the most gifted side.