The Young Socceroos are using the latest in sports science as they prepare for the upcoming FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia.
With all three Group C matches to be played at 2,150m above sea level in the Colombian city of Manizales, the first decision Young Socceroos head coach Jan Versleijen made when planning the campaign was to have a 10-day pre-tournament altitude training camp in Denver, Colorado.
Denver is situated at 1,600m above sea level and is high enough to let the players bodies adjust to the demands of playing at altitude with temperatures hovering around 34°C and 20-30 percent humidity.
Versleijen, who is also in charge of the men's football program at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in Canberra, consulted with some of Australia's top sports scientists at the AIS Sports Physiology Department on how to best prepare his team for the challenge of competing at altitude. The AIS Sports Physiology Department has over 20 years of experience of using altitude to prepare athletes for competition and is considered the world leader in the area.
"To compete at the World Cup we have to conquer all the conditions which includes the altitude, time difference, temperature and the movement of the ball," said Versleijen after training on the second day of the camp.
"We know that the training loads placed on the players are different at altitude compared to sea level.
"The science is used to confirm and check the performance of the players during training.
"If you don't monitor the loads and stresses on the players during this phase of our preparations they will break down and will not be at their peak for the tournament.
"Our training sessions will be gradually built up from 65 minutes to 90 minutes as the players acclimatise to the conditions.
"It must also be considered that the match ball moves differently at altitude and our training drills have been modified to maximise ball interaction for the players.
"By combining all this knowledge and strategies we will be fully prepared for the start of the tournament.
AIS Sports Physiologist Laura Garvican and Victorian University of Technology Exercise Science Honours Student Kristal Hammond have also travelled with the Young Socceroos to Denver to assist with the team's preparations.
Garvican and Hammond will monitor the heart-rate and GPS positioning of each of the players during the training sessions to provide valuable feedback to the coaching staff on individual performance. The data collected at each training session is discussed daily with the coaches, and modifications to future training sessions are made where necessary.
Garvican, who specialises in preparing elite athletes for extreme environments, believes that there is much to be gained from using the latest in sports science to prepare the Young Socceroos for the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
"Elite endurance athletes have used altitude training for many years as a means to improve their performance at sea level," said Garvican
"The use of altitude in team sports has not been explored in depth, but many team sports are now facing the challenges of altitude due to the location of major sporting events.
"Faced with the challenge of competing at the U-20 World Cup at altitudes greater than 2000m, the Young Socceroos are drawing on the experience that Australian sports scientists have gained from endurance athletes, in order to achieve the best possible preparation.
"The combination of the heat and altitude in Denver provides potential benefits from two angles - the altitude provides a stimulus to increase red blood cell production, whilst the primary adaptation to heat stress results in an increase in plasma volume. In combination, these adaptations result in a larger blood volume, allowing the players to work harder, for longer."
Young Socceroos team medical officer, Dr Trevor Law, is responsible for the overall wellbeing of the team and monitors the player's sleep levels and hydration on a daily basis to ensure that they are adequately compensating for the loss of electrolytes that they experience through training.
"The biggest issue of competing at altitude is getting the body accustomed to the physiological changes which includes headaches, sleep disturbance and fluid loss," said Dr Law.
"To overcome the effects of altitude stress we are monitoring their hydration levels, their sleeping patterns and general nutritional levels.
"One strategy to assist with the adjustment to the time zone differences was that the players were put onto the desired time zone from the time we left Sydney and once we arrived avoided direct daylight in the mornings, meaning that training was mainly held in the afternoons for the first few days.
"Each player adapts to the change in altitude differently, but within a few days they will normalize and we believe that by the time we arrive in Colombia the altitude will not be a significant issue."
In total the Young Socceroos will spend 10 days in Denver before travelling to Colombia on 26 July to complete their preparations before their opening match of the FIFA U-20 World Cup against Ecuador on 31 July.
Borussia Dortmund's Mustafa Amini is among a 26-man Australia U-20 squad selected for a European training camp this month that will include internationals against Netherlands and Germany.