World Cup 2022 in Qatar: the concerns of the technical staffs of the national teams
World Cup 2022 in Qatar already started. We have gathered testimonials from the technical staff of the national football teams, who gave us their opinions on the challenge of competing by adapting to new paradigms: the moment of the season, the temperature during the competitions, the risk of injury and the strategies between the matches. Also, how thermography help them to deal with most of the factors they face.
The 2022 World Cup in Qatar is unique due to its idiosyncrasy. It is in the middle of the main leagues in the world (Premier League, LaLiga, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, etc.), they will have less time to adapt to the place and conditions, high temperatures for practicing sports and a schedule prone to more injuries due to accumulated fatigue.
The majority of the players who play in the World Cup, 44% according to Tuo et al. (2019) have a European origin. This is why, for the European leagues, this competition can be especially difficult, as it means a break in the middle of the season.
In other competitions, such as the Brazilian or the Japanese, he competition is already finished and for their part they have suffered more times the stoppage due to international competition, without any presence in the scientific literature of how they affect international tournaments in the middle of the season.
World Cup Qatar 2022 will take place at a time in the season where athletes have already accumulated a considerable number of matches, so that competition fatigue may be a relevant factor in performance (Heisterberg et al. 2013). In addition, it is known that this period of the competition is where the most injuries occur, most with an overuse character due to exposure to sport, as seen in figure 1 (Noya J. 2015).
Likewise, there are opinion articles that have already discussed the number of games that some players had played during a year. For example, Pep Guardiola recorded a total of 94 games for some of his players who competed internationally (The Guardian, 2019). This means that it is more difficult to combine training, recovery between games and a state of readiness to be at the best level with the least risk of injury.
In this sense, we have the testimonial of Arne Jaspers from Royal Belgian Football Association that highlights the state of physical conditioning of the players at this point of the season:
“Most of the players are actually fit at this moment. They have built up a dense schedule and arrive ready to compete in these matches, in a short period of time. Of course, we have to focus on the recovery process and also the injury risks are there. But I think that, the players will be able to deal with fatigue and be fresh, mentally as well. Something that does not happen at the end of the season when they are mentally fatigued”.Arne Jaspers – Royal Belgian Football Association
What will happen when they return to domestic competition?
A recent opinion article analyzes how competitions of the same nature (international competitions in the middle of the regular season) have affected the risk of injury for players returning to their clubs. The results show that compared to their teammates who had not played in the international tournament, the players who returned to the club were more likely to be injured in the following 7 days or in the 10 days if there is competition involved (Buchanan, R. 2022).
One of the issues that can most affect the physical preparation area of the clubs is the lag in the accumulated workloads among the players who will not play the international tournament, those who are eliminated in the early stages of the international tournament and those who dispute the final phases. All these players will find themselves facing different workloads. When they return to their “normal”, domestic competition, they will have to deal with different scenarios when it comes to resuming competition, which is closely linked to the risk of injury (Gabbett T. 2020).
Lastly, as seen in the research by Ekstrand et al. (2019), the players who do not rest in the winter period suffer a greater number of severe injuries that leave them longer without competing: 185.9 days per 1000h of exposure compared to the 127 days for every 1000h of exposure of those who did rest.
We must also take into account the fact that not only the competition calendar, but also the location, as it is an environment with high temperatures where it has been seen that competing without being acclimatized decreases the performance of soccer players. It has been proven that under these conditions they perform 10% less sprints, the distance covered at high intensity decreases from 26.9 to 24.8 m/min/player and technical variables such as the rate of successful passes decrease from 76.8% to 73.6% (Nassis et al. 2015). That been said, it is necessary to review which factors may affect performance during the Qatar 2022 World Cup.
In this sense, Ismael Camenforte from Danish national team highlights the importance of hydration strategies and pre-cooling and per-cooling techniques during competition.
“…The hot and humid environment is something to take into account for Nordic players. At the European Championship in Baku, we checked their urine and dehydration every morning, and their weight during training sessions and matches. In addition, before starting the games and at halftime with wet towels, we tried to lower the body temperature. We don’t think it’s going to be that hot in Qatar, but we are prepared…”Ismael Camenforte – Danish Football Association
Weather and heat acclimatization strategies until the first games.
From the end of the regular competition until the players start competing in the World Cup in Qatar 2022, between 8 and 12 days will pass. As an example, the Ecuadorian national team will compete on November 12 in a friendly match to start the World Cup against the host, Qatar on November 20th.
According to the scientific literature, heat negatively influences performance, forcing an increase in heart rate. In addition, voluntary muscle activation is decreased and metabolic waste products in the muscle are increased (Périard et al. 2021).
Luckily, there is a physiological adaptation to these environments through controlled and gradual exposure, which takes at least 12 days to reach optimal values. Most of the adaptations are at the cardiovascular level, with a reduction in heart rate, an improvement in ventricular filling, and greater myocardial efficiency. In addition, the ability to exercise under these conditions increases as the adaptation days progress (Périard et al. 2021), as may be seen in figure 2.
Therefore, in the first matches of the World Cup, the players will not be completely adapted to the environmental situation that they will have there when it comes to dealing with previous training sessions, and quite possibly competitions.
It seems that a refrigeration system will be used to maintain a constant temperature of 26°C in the dry bulb. However, this will only affect two stadiums, Al Thumama and Education City (Fenwick M., 2021), as can be seen in figure 3. Therefore, it remains latent that there may be a competitive advantage for those who are better acclimatized or who compete in stadiums with better conditions.
For this, it seems interesting to start with previous acclimatization strategies that have also shown an improvement in performance in stimuli dependent on oxygen consumption and power development, through aerobic sessions of exposure to high temperatures (38 ºC) (Keiser et al. 2015). In addition, it seems interesting to include this type of aerobic interventions in heat, since it has been seen in other studies how active recovery interventions (aerobic exercises without exposure to heat after training) recover all performance variables more quickly (Rey et al. 2012; Peake et al. 2017).
Therefore, it seems interesting to combine both methods to acclimatize, help recover and improve performance, through moderate intensity aerobic exercises lasting between 10 and 15 minutes. The trained muscle groups should be requested, but not with the same motor pattern, in this case cycling a bicycle seems the most recommendable.
Optimization strategies through thermography for recovery and performance in competition.
Thermography is a tool that can help control heat acclimatization monitoring. Thanks to its speed and safety, it can be used in the routines of the teams, such as in the morning data collection as one more test.
It consists of taking a photograph with a thermographic camera, which has a special lens that captures radiation from skin temperature to obtain the thermal data of the body regions of the soccer players. With these data, an assessment of the temperature of the body region is made and work is done based on a methodology that compares asymmetries, thanks to its relationship with imbalances and injuries (Côrte et al. 2019, Gómez-Carmona et al. 2020). Figure 4 represents a normal day of thermal data collection in a soccer team:
“…We already are tracking HRV, and now with ThermoHuman added to the program, we have another tool that can give us information about what the status of the player is. Next to that, we can say to a player what the best modality is for that player at that moment, in time. Especially because the body is reacting so different to the new situation for us in Doha, it will benefit our players to know what is best for them. To use ThermoHuman is not only useful for this tournament, but it will benefit the program of all our national teams including our women team that participates in the Women World Cup. [..] So, we can also see this as an investment in the program of US Soccer…”Rick Cost (Head of performance) US Soccer Federation
Thermography for monitoring adaptation
Thanks to generating a thermal profile of each player, it is possible to obtain the variation of their body temperature over time to assess acclimatization. There is research that indicates that athletes who have a lower skin temperature prior to a competition perform better (r = 0.32, p = 0.046) (Racinais et al. 2021).
If we manage to evaluate the soccer players in the pre-competition, it will be possible to identify which profile of players are the best to compete, since those who have a lower body temperature compared to the last days of training probably have a better predisposition to competition (Figure 5).
Thermography for fatigue control
On the other hand, the response after the competition is also decisive for establishing recovery strategies. Competing in the heat increases the perception of exertion and biochemical markers of the muscle (Périard et al. 2021). It has been seen that after a soccer match the markers of muscle damage (CK), the parameters of the immune function, the variables of physical capacity and the perception of recovery are negatively altered until at least 72 hours after the competition. (Silva et al. 2017).
There is a positive relationship between markers of muscle damage (CK) and thermography, after a congested period of soccer matches, which also indicates that body temperature will be affected by the match (de Andrade-Fernandes et al. 2017).
Greater increases in body temperature are related to greater structural damage to tissues. In addition, the authors point out that if it is intended to measure the internal load using skin temperature data, it seems that taking the thermal image 24 hours after the match is better than 48 hours after (de Andrade-Fernandes et al. 2017).
Finally, in a recent review, different types of fatigue have been identified, one with a more metabolic orientation and the other with a more structural orientation, after a competitive effort that result in different interpretations to recover (Thorpe, R. 2021). The authors suggest that, depending on the origins of fatigue, an individualization strategy for post-exercise recovery may be prescribed. Therefore, metabolic fatigue must be compensated with heat therapies and structural damage with cooling (Figure 6).
To do this, tools for monitoring the physiological processes that occur while facing fatigue are decisive in individualizing recovery. Thermography is one of the most innovative tools for the control of fatigue processes, thanks to its sensitivity to analyze changes in body temperature and its relationship with the different body systems, both the musculoskeletal system with the mapping of body regions (Gómez-Carmona, P. 2020) and its relationship with muscle damage (de Andrade-Fernandes et al. 2017; Priego-Quesada, I. 2022), as well as its relationship with the nervous system and fatigue central (Sillero-Quintana et al. 2022; Hillen et al. 2020)
It seems interesting to choose heat acclimatization strategies in order to improve performance by including them in the training and recovery routines of soccer teams.
In addition, thermography can help monitor acclimatization to the heat, identify which player profile is the best fit to compete and who is recovering best after the effort to establish what type of recovery intervention the players need.
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