How Rustenburg’s high altitude will race hearts, burn lungs
JOHN TERRY spoke this week of having to deal with dry mouth caused by altitude. This is just one of many problems that could face players during today’s game against the USA.
The Royal Bafokeng Stadium is set at almost 1 500 metres – an altitude similar to many European ski resorts.
The air is thinner, meaning fewer oxygen molecules are inhaled with every breath. As the body works hard to compensate, breathing and heart rate increase and levels of glucose, needed for energy, go down.
Playing at altitude can affect footballers no matter how fit they are.
In fact, players in top physical condition may be more vulnerable than ordinary people.
According to Richard Pullan, director of London’s Altitude Centre, players process oxygen like sports cars use petrol – quickly but not as efficiently as others.
Brain: Decision-making may be impaired and reaction times slowed, making Terry more likely to mistime challenges and misplace passes. At 1 500 metres, oxygen intake reduces by 16.5 percent, affecting cognitive functions. Players may also find it harder to sleep, sapping energy.
Nose: Sinuses can play up, leading to runny noses and headaches, which could hinder performances across the pitch. The air will be drier, dehydrating airways.
Mouth: Players will need to drink more to avoid feeling dehydrated; Terry revealed how the thin air at altitude made players’ mouths dry.
Heart: Performances could fade in the second half. Frank Lampard, who likes to cover the length of a pitch, will find his body tires quicker than usual as his heart has to work harder to pump blood and the oxygen it holds around the body. Players’ hearts will beat between five and 10 times faster than usual.
Lungs: Players will run out of breath quicker. With fewer oxygen particles in the air, they will have to inhale more often to get air to their lungs.
Bladder: Players may need the toilet during games. Urinating is more frequent at altitude as it enables the body to reabsorb bicarbonate, which changes the acid level in the blood and helps release oxygen around the body.
Skin: Balls may slip out of players’ hands when taking throw-ins and sweat may drip into their eyes – because the body is under more stress than usual, making skin unusually clammy.
Muscles: Fullbacks Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson may find it difficult to cover the length of the byline. As the body works hard to maintain oxygen and glucose levels, limbs will burn and feel heavier, reaction times will slow and it will take longer to recover after games. Ledley King, take note.
Feet: Players’ boots will feel tight, affecting ball control. Feet often swell at altitude because the air pressure outside will be lower than the pressure of oxygen inside the body.
The ball: Balls will move faster, which could catch goalkeepers out. This is due to the reduced density of the atmosphere. Wayne Rooney will find the ball has less time to dip and curves less, with the effects of drag
and spin reduced.
Changes in altitude: After today’s game, England play Algeria next Friday at sea level in Cape Town. It is the change in altitude that could be a problem. Research shows that when teams from altitude descend to play away, they are less likely to win than other teams who play at sea level.