The sweltering heat took its toll on England particularly in Ukraine at Euro 2012. What can England learn from this experience?
The dust has now settled after an enthralling Euro 2012. England met most people’s expectations and are sitting pretty in fourth in FIFA’s world rankings. Irrespective of this the manner in which England bowed out is a major cause for concern.
Despite having relatively little to do against France in their opening game, England’s number one Joe Hart looked physically exhausted in his post-match interview.
“It’s hot out there; I’m not going to bore anyone with excuses because we were both tired, both from countries that aren’t used to that heat.
Whilst Hart’s words were an honest admission, his expression was more of disbelief.
For the first 60 minutes England and France were evenly matched in possession. Just after the hour mark there was a noticeable drop in England’s performance, culminating in the two rigid banks of four being camped on the edge of their own 18-yard box. The usually tireless Scott Parker was eventually replaced by Jordan Henderson on 77 minutes as a result of fatigue. England soaked up the pressure well with Benzema looking like the only French player capable of making something happen in the latter stages.
Similarly England’s defence dropped deep late on against Sweden, despite little evidence of a swift or particularly potent offence, a clear sign of weary legs. Fortunately, the number of bodies behind the ball kept the Scandinavians at bay.
Even against Italy, England refused to back down and fought until the dreaded penalty shoot-out. In reality the players gave all they had to give on a physical and technical level.
So how can England account for such lacklustre performances?
It is obvious to many that England lack the technically gifted individuals possessed by Spain and Germany in particular, however what was surprising was the lack of apparent fitness demonstrated, something the Premiership supposedly prides itself on. After examining the coaching staff’s arrangements prior to the tournament, it seems that England entered Euro 2012 wholly unprepared.
Fitness levels can’t be blamed, neither can the ages of our central midfield pairing (Parker and Gerrard are 31 and 32 respectively) or the long season beforehand as the likes of Xavi and Alonso played in excess of 50 games for club and country and still impressed throughout.
What we have to look at is other factors that may affect performance. And as Joe Hart rightly pointed out, the heat of Ukraine had a massive bearing on England’s performances.
Exercising in the heat
The challenge when exercising in hot conditions is to lose heat fast enough to ensure that body temperature does not rise in excess of 40°C. At this point the body is at serious risk of heat stroke.
Humans have evolved to be excellent thermal regulators and have numerous mechanisms designed to dissipate heat in order to prevent getting too hot. Basic physics dictates that we can lose heat through conduction, convection, radiation and evaporation.
During England’s first match the environmental (air temperature) peaked at 34°C exceeding the temperature at the skins surface (33°C) resulting in the players actually absorbing heat from the air. At this point sweating is the only viable method of losing heat.
The vast majority of heat generated is lost through evaporation of water at the skin, otherwise known as sweating. Generally the higher the intensity, the greater the volume of sweat produced to counteract rising levels of heat. At high-intensities athletes can lose over a litre of fluid an hour, so it is imperative to take water on when thirsty and rehydrate properly after exercise.
During exercise blood is pumped away from our digestive tract and redirected to our muscles, this is known as the vascular shunt. An increase in muscle blood flow allows more oxygen to be delivered and more carbon dioxide and waste products to be removed from the working muscles, allowing aerobic respiration to persist.
An increase in skin blood flow is also witnessed to allow heat to be lost through conduction / convection. During extended bouts of high-intensity exercise at high temperatures, blood has a tendency to pool (build-up) in the skins capillaries (the smallest type of blood vessel). Couple this with a decreased blood volume associated with sweating and there is a significant fall in blood pressure, putting massive strains on the heart.
At this point reflex adjustments (non-thermoregulatory) kick in attempting to preserve blood pressure, forcing blood back into the core (through an increase in total peripheral resistance) and preventing such severe consequences such as cardiovascular failure (heart attack). This increases the muscle temperature beyond which can be sustained, causing fatigue, cramp and a drop in performance.
Therefore because of the higher environmental temperatures, heat was generated too quickly, and adjustments were needed to find an optimum heat balance. The hypothalamus (the thermoregulatory control centre) in the brain receives feedback from sensors all over the body to determine a safe intensity at which to work. The brain then limits the amount of muscle tissue that is “active” in order to maintain this balance, resulting in a reduced level of performance, as demonstrated by the England squad during the latter stages of their match with France.
Could this have been helped?
In short, yes. A lot of the effects of heat can be countered by a process called acclimatisation something which England appeared to do little of. Acclimatisation involves living and training in the conditions you are going to be competing in whether it’s hot / cold, dry / wet, at altitude or a combination.
England arrived in Krakow (Poland) on 6th June, just 5 days prior to their first game against France which was scheduled to take place in Donetsk, Ukraine. The gulf in temperature between Krakow and Donetsk on June 11th was a cool 13°C, the hottest temperature seen in London that day.
Someone in the England camp, not necessarily Hodgson, should have realised there was a huge difference in temperature between where they were based and where they were playing, and that this could potentially affect the team’s performance.
Had England arrived in Ukraine 7 days prior to the start of the tournament and begun training, the extra time and exposure to the heat may have induced cardiovascular adaptations that may have been hugely beneficial during the early games.
A 7-day heat-acclimation protocol would lower resting core body temperature by approximately 0.6°C. Although this may seem a nominal amount, it is enough to allow temperature-sensitive enzymes responsible for producing energy to continue working at their optimum level. This would also allow a longer period of time before reaching critical heat levels.
Other training-induced responses include an up-regulation of heat-shock proteins or HSP’s. These stress molecules serve a number of functions ranging from preventing denaturing (breakdown) of key enzymes involved in energy production to preventing damage to neurons responsible for stimulating muscle contraction.
Hypothetically speaking England could have continued their intensity for the entirety of the 90 minutes against France. This could have had a major effect on the overall outcome of not only that particular game but heading into subsequent games. The momentum from good performances could have carried us further in the tournament, but unfortunately we’ll never know.
What can England learn from this?
In an ideal world England would arrive 2 weeks early, acclimatise and maybe even have played a friendly or two in Ukraine. Amongst other obligations, the modern national team has to play a farewell game at Wembley, something which is unlikely to change in the future.
What can change is the structure of the backroom staff. England has experts that are no doubt providing similar, much more detailed information similar to that provided in this article to help Hodgson and indeed his predecessor Capello. For whatever reason, tradition or otherwise, the manager pulls rank in these types of situations. What authority do Hodgson and indeed Capello have here?
Yes, both are highly respected coaches with 61 years of managerial experience between them. Yes, both have won major honours doing things their own way. Yes, both act/acted with the best of intentions. But if the English game is to move forward, and the national team is to win a major international tournament they have to take science into consideration.
Team GB made use of experts to great effect at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, hauling in an impressive 47 medals, 19 of them gold, their largest for 100 years, something they wish to build upon this summer. Let’s hope England do the same in time for Brazil 2014.