One of the biggest challenges tournament football presents is managing fatigue levels & recovering properly between games that are sometimes as little as 4 days apart. Add to this conundrum the fact that many of your players will already be in a state of fatigue from a long domestic season & you can see why tournament football doesn’t always go how it should on paper.
England’s group games take place on the 18th (Tunisia), 24th (Panama) & the 28th June (Belgium) – this means that they play 3 games in 11 days; with only 4 days to recover between the Panama & Belgium games. This may seem like ample time to recover, but with outfield players running as much as 12km per game (Thomas Mueller averaged 12km per game in Brazil), the numerous high intensity actions (accelerations, decelerations, jumps etc), the physical contact / knocks that may occur, alongside the effects of dehydration…I’m sure you get the picture – for optimal performance going in to the next game, this physical stress need to be negated.
This is where the various National teams’ Sport Scientists, Strength & Conditioning Coaches and Medical Teams become priceless. They will have recovery protocols in place at both a team level and an individual level, based upon information they receive from the players’ club Sports Scientist / S&C Coaches. For example, a team will have a post game recovery protocol which all players will adhere to, however they may also allow an extra day’s recovery for those players who have been identified to need it (these are usually the fast-twitch / type II fibre guys – think pacey, powerful, with high neuromuscular demand – Jamie Vardy is a prime example of this & a case which has been highlighted by Leicester’s highly regarded head of Sports Science, Matt Reeves).
The Basics The three ‘pillars’ of recovery when it comes to sport (& fitness) are; Sleep, Nutrition & Hydration. They are very basic & controllable variables that can have huge effects on how athletes recover & therefore the potential to enhance or negate performance accordingly.
Research into sleep, recovery & performance (Le Meur, Skein & Duffield, 2013) has shown:
- 7x greater injury risk in athletes who sleep <8hours per night.
- Sleep is crucial for tissue repair as growth hormone is released in phases of deep sleep.
- Sleep loss is associated with immune system dysfunction (which makes athletes more susceptible to viruses / illness).
- Sleep loss is associated with slower & less accurate cognitive performance (key to football performance.
- Sufficient sleep should be obtained following training sessions as perceptual & motor learning processes continue during sleep.
So…it’s pretty obvious as to why athletes need to have >8 hours of good quality sleep per night in order to recover properly.
During tournaments players are; away from home, in strange beds & often sharing rooms with teammates – these factors present a challenge for athletes to maintain normal, healthy sleeping patterns. However ‘sleep hygiene’ protocols can be put in place to help promote quality sleep.
These usually consist of the following practices:
- Creating the ideal sleeping environment; quiet, dark room with NO light, temperature ~18oC, avoid the use of electronic devices <45mins before sleep (light from these devices can reduce melatonin by up to 22% – Figueiro et al, 2012).
- Consuming a high GI Carb & high protein meal >1hr before bed. (high GI carbs have been found to help promote sleep & high protein foods have been found to increase the quality of sleep) (Halson, 2014).
- Avoiding alcohol & avoiding caffeine in the afternoon/evening.
- Keeping a regular sleep schedule with a wind-down period of 1hour (dim lights, no ‘blue light’ from electronic devices & partaking in relaxed activities; reading, listening to music etc.)
When it comes to nutrition strategies with football teams; supplements, pre-match meals, post match meal, carbohydrate intake…there are ‘many ways to skin a cat’.
Every club will have their own nutrition protocol & use their own supplements for their players, so when it comes to international duty it will be a marriage of the players clubs’ & the country’s nutritional strategies.
Here are a few of the basic nutritional strategies many clubs/countries employ to try to maximize recovery & optimise performance:
– Periodisation of carbohydrate intake based upon training loads & game schedules. In the case of England’s 3 games in 10 days, research suggests 6-10g/kg body mass of carbohydrates per day during this period (this is effectively carbohydrate loading). On lighter days within 1-game-per-week periods, <4-5g/kg body mass of carbs is optimal for maintenance of body composition whilst having healthy carbohydrate availability (Anderson et al 2015).
– Use of a recovery shake post training sessions / games. Personally my preference for a recovery shake is ~60-80g carbs & 30g protein, consumed with 45mins of the session/activity ending. This acts as an anabolic hit & serves to reduce the cortisol (stress hormone) built up during training / matches. Cortisol is a testosterone suppressor, so it’s important to reduce cortisol levels before the next day’s session / match. Maintenance of high natural testosterone levels is vital in optimizing performance (especially in powerful, fast-twitch athletes – think pacey strikers, wingers, full backs, strong centre backs).
– Eating protein with all meals & consuming 20-30g protein 30-60mins post match/longer training sessions. Multiple benefits including; maximizing muscle protein synthesis, provides amino acids for repair of muscle proteins, can optimise muscle glycogen concentrations (key for football) & can reduce training-induced reductions in immune function (Moore et al, 2014).
– Pre-match meal ~3 hours before kick off, consisting of high carbohydrate, some protein & low fat (to ensure it can be easily digested).
Dehydration as a result of sweat loss from training/matches (which is exasperated by higher temperatures during Summer tournaments) can have serious negative effects upon performance. However, these effects can be easily addressed & as a result aid recovery & performance optimisation.
Below are some of the negative effects dehydration has on performance & recovery (in relation to water loss as % of body weight:
– 0-2%: Impaired ability to regulate body temperature.
– 2-4%: Reduced muscular endurance time (you simply fatigue quicker).
– 4-6%: Reduced muscular strength (20-40%), impaired concentration, drowsiness & possible cramping.
– 6-8%: Heat Exhaustion, heatstroke, coma, and death!
(None of the above effects are ideal for tournament football!)
To address dehydration & stay hydrated, here are a few protocols national teams may employ:
- Measurement of sweat rates to ensure that fluid intake outweighs sweat loss
- Consumption of isotonic drinks; the carbohydrate & electrolyte content is optimised for quicker absorption from stomach. Once electrolytes have been consumed, this further aids the uptake of plain water due to the higher electrolyte concentration in the gut.
- Avoid alcohol & excessive caffeine intake.
- Have a clear plan for pre competition hydration.
- Ensure that whilst travelling (especially by plane) you are consuming 1.5x your normal fluid intake.
If you can address the three basic pillars of recovery (sleep, nutrition & hydration) correctly, this will provide the best possible chances of maximizing recovery & optimising performance. Beyond the above basics, there are numerous methods to optimise recovery with varying research outcomes. Some of the alternative methods which are often employed & most credible (in my humble opinion) include; ice/cold water baths or cryotherapy massage therapy, compression garments & regeneration / active recovery days.
To put it all together into a post match recovery protocol, it would often look something like this:
End of match > Thorough Cool Down & Mobility > Hydrate > Recovery Shake (carbs & protein) > Cold Bath > High GI, High Protein Meal > Compression Garments > Sleep Preparation Protocol > Sleep.
The following day would normally be a regeneration or recovery day, consisting of light non-impact aerobic work (often on a bike or in the pool), mobility work, a stretching protocol & any prehab/injury prevention work.
As with all sports science protocols, the key is to get the basics right first (as they will provide the biggest gains), from there the marginal gains can be made from the high-technology more innovative practices. In short; there is no excuse for any national team to allow their players to have poor sleep, be dehydrated or have a diet that does not meet the nutritional demands of the sport.
Hopefully, even as England fans, we can enjoy the World Cup…but spare a thought for sports scientists & coaches trying to get the players off their phones/laptops/iPads before bed to ensure a good nights sleep…if you see an Instagram post at 1am from a player at the 2018 World Cup, you know they haven’t succeeded!