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The science behind securing a World Cup win

What a team does in between match days has a definite impact on their next performance

Published: Updated:

It’s hard to find fault so far with the Costa Rican team’s surprising World Cup campaign. Until now, they have gone head to head and proven their mettle against some of the most elite nations in the tournament. In fact, they clinched first place in their group, reaching the Round of 16 phase of the tournament after beating football powerhouses Uruguay and Italy.

In the Round of 16, the Costa Ricans played against Greece like real warriors, defending and attacking fiercely with a spirit that epitomized true love for game and country. Only victory in that game would have done justice to the valiant effort displayed by this psychologically resilient team, which played with 10 men for almost an hour.

Tomorrow, in the World Cup quarter-finals, they may face their biggest challenge yet when they take on the Netherlands, a formidable opponent. The race to physically recover for this match started immediately following the dual with Greece. The Costa Ricans will have to deal with extreme recovery-related issues within their squad following an exhausting marathon against Greece, during which they played for 90 minutes and two halves of extra time. What they have done in the days and hours leading up to the quarter-final match will determine whether they make a complete recovery. Brazil, having also played an exhausting bout of extra time against Chile, faces a similar predicament when they face Colombia today in their quarter-final match.

Over the last 20 years, the field of exercise physiology has been able to generate significant research relevant to sports performance. In many instances, football coaches have not made use of cutting-edge research from exercise physiology to aid their players’ performance, especially compared to their counterparts in sports such as track and field, cycling and American football.

However, it would be difficult to find a team in the English Premier League, the showcase of international football, without an exercise physiologist on staff. Many national teams known for high fitness levels, such as Holland, Germany, the U.S. and even Australia, place great importance on the field of exercise physiology and rely heavily on the latest research coming out of this discipline to aid physical performance. Some of these teams are better able to cover space and pressurize the opposition for a longer portion of match play.

A vital role

Exercise physiologists play a vital role in monitoring football teams and increasing the physiological capacity or fitness levels of the players through various methods. One of the most important secret weapons at the disposal of the exercise physiologist is the knowledge of how to accelerate the recovery process of players in between matches.

Given the lack of emphasis many World Cup teams place on the field of exercise physiology even in this day and age, it would not be surprising to see many squads becoming somewhat physically debilitated during or after playing overtime and having recovery-related problems that lead to suboptimal performance. For example, Algeria, having made a valiant effort during their match against Germany and actually seeming to have a chance to win, was on the ropes during the last half of extra time. Surely, they had “hit the wall,” a term commonly used by exercise physiologists to describe when athletes encounter sudden fatigue and loss of energy. Even Belgium seemed to be a little winded during the final minutes of extra time in their Round of 16 bout against the U.S. Conversely, the U.S. was the team that still had the stamina to pressure the Belgians until the very end.

In a competition such as the World Cup, matches are played back to back, and the ability to recover from one match to the next becomes paramount to succeeding in the competition. Such an extreme schedule presents a clear problem for teams that have an inability to recover within those quick turnaround periods. Several techniques employed by the exercise physiologist to speed up players’ recovery process become even more critical in such competitions. A team playing only a single match, where recovery may not be an issue, might get away with not having some of these techniques in place if they possess overwhelming talent, but in the World Cup, any team unable to use these techniques goes into the field of battle with low-caliber weaponry.

Convincing research

Convincing research has shown that the 50 minutes following exhaustive match play is crucial to the recovery process. A small window of opportunity exists in which cells within the skeletal muscle are more open to receiving vital nutrients that replenish reserves of glycogen, the fuel stored in muscles. Glycogen is the gasoline fueling the motor of an athlete; it aids in the recovery process and provides the energy for muscles to work. In fact, a parallel can be drawn between the way glycogen functions in human muscle cells and the way gasoline functions in the tank of a vehicle. A Ferrari would be useless as a source of transportation with an empty gas tank, just as 11 players with the skills of Pelé on the pitch would be useless with low glycogen reserves in their muscle cells.

Glycogen levels can be further augmented and returned to normal pre-match levels within the 36 to 48 hours that follow exhaustive exercise if players follow a proper dietary regimen, take the proper supplements (ergogenic aids) and receive adequate rest. Other important physiological processes may take longer.

What a team does in between match days has a definite impact on glycogen levels. Therefore, exactly how Jorge Luis Pinto, the Costa Rican coach, controls the team’s workload (e.g., the intensity, frequency and duration of training) in the days between the match against Greece and the quarter-final bout against Holland will be critical for optimal performance. In fact, one of the main conundrums facing many head coaches in international football is the question of how much to submit players to tactical, technical and physical stress during the period between matches. A lack of ability to control, plan or find a balance among these three elements prior to a match can lead to lethargic performances. Moreover, properly controlling the intensity, duration and frequency of any between-match sessions is vital. There is a real risk that even if all the recovery strategies were put in place, they could be rendered useless by a poorly calibrated training load.

The recovery process of the Costa Rican national team is all the more important because they played a big portion of their last game with a man down and extra time, a disadvantage the Dutch did not have. There is a risk that they may not have recovered fully from their match against Greece by the time they face the Netherlands. However, given the awesome vitality the Costa Ricans have displayed so far in the tournament, I would assume that some of these advanced recovery strategies are currently being applied. Whether or not they will fully recover and whether or not they will be able to display their usual physically vigorous style of play will depend on the extent of the knowledge of exercise physiology that Jorge Luis Pinto and his assistants possess.

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Ricardo Guerra is an exercise physiologist. He has a Masters of Science in sports physiology from the Liverpool John Moores University. He has worked with several clubs and teams in the Middle East and Europe, including the Egyptian and Qatari national teams.