Matches, Science

2014 FIFA World Cup Soccer Fitness Preview: Mexico – The Altitude Acclimatization Advantage


Because this is a World Cup year, I have decided to countdown to the tournament by providing a short soccer/fitness related preview of each of the 32 participating nations.  In this installment, I’m going to take a look at Mexico, traditionally one of the strongest nations in CONCACAF, who have qualified for 14 World Cups, and have not missed out on the tournament since 1990.  They are in Group A (along with hosts Brazil, Croatia, and Cameroon).  They play their first match against Cameroon on June 13th.

Playing soccer in Mexico City, the nation’s capital, can be very tiring. I know, both because I played there myself in an international youth tournament in 1996, and also because I worked as Fitness Coach with the Canadian Women’s National U17 team during our  training camp there in December of 2011 (where the team played two matches against the Mexican U17’s).  The city is situated atop a small mountain, almost 2.5 kilometres above sea level.  At such a high altitude, the partial pressure of oxygen in the air is much lower than it is at sea level, and as a result there is much less oxygen available for the body to breathe (and for working muscles to use).

What this means for soccer players who travel to play there is that they will get tired a lot sooner during games than they normally would, and they also will not be able to recover as quickly between the runs they make over the course of a game.  Mexicans who have grown up in the city, however, have spent their entire lives becoming acclimatized to the high altitude.  Their cardiovascular and respiratory systems have gradually evolved to become more efficient at oxygen intake and delivery to working muscles.  When these players travel and compete in parts of Mexico – or other countries – that are closer to sea level, their more efficient hearts and lungs allow them to perform better by improving aerobic endurance and off-setting fatigue.  Sports scientists have coined the term “live high, train low”, to describe this very effective training strategy.  Several research studies have shown significant improvements in aerobic endurance in athletes who have followed a “live high, train low” protocol, even in as little time as 4-6 weeks.

For the Mexican National Soccer Team, the increased aerobic endurance gained from their acclimatization to high altitude could be a secret weapon that helps them to progress out of their group.  If they can hold other strong teams in their group, like Brazil and Croatia, to a close scoreline in the first 60-80 minutes of their matches, they will likely have a slight performance edge in the final 10-20 minutes and could steal a goal to secure a tie or a win.  We will have to wait and see what happens in 3 months’ time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.

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