AFL

AFL: Clubs trade height for heat in pre-season training

As recently as the 2014 pre-season, eight AFL clubs participated in high-altitude training camps in the United States. This summer, only North Melbourne swapped southern hemisphere sweat for the chilly high of Utah's thin air – and less than half the Kangaroos' list went along.

Football's attitude to altitude has come back to earth, for a variety of reasons, atop which sits that most pervasive of drivers – money. Heat is the new height, which at summertime in a sunburnt country isn't nearly as costly or difficult to find.

The shift has proved a boon for the Sunshine Coast, with the Western Bulldogs just back from a 10-day stint at the same Mooloolaba facility Hawthorn used in December, while Melbourne, St Kilda and Brisbane Lions all toiled in Maroochydore either side of Christmas. Carlton went to Broadbeach, Richmond to Port Douglas, GWS to Noosa, and Essendon's first-to-fourth-year players to Darwin.

Collingwood, not long ago seen as the AFL's altitude training pioneer, ventured only as far as Falls Creek with its young players — for the facilities not the elevation — while the more seasoned Magpies drove to Portsea. Sydney spent four days last week in Coffs Harbour, while other clubs laid their physical foundations for the new season close enough to home to rest weary heads on their own pillows each night.

Geelong has never bought into the giddy pronouncements of what training at altitude in a faraway land can do for a footballer. This summer, the farthest the Cats travelled from Kardinia Park was down Aberdeen Street to Newtown when their Simonds Stadium base was flooded.

"You look at the successful clubs of recent times - Hawthorn, Sydney and Geelong didn't buy into it," one club football manager said of altitude camps. "That's not to say it's right or wrong, but when the soft cap on footy department spending came in, it was an obvious expense to do without."

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Taking a full playing list plus coaches and support staff to America for a fortnight can bite a big chunk out of a club's $9.4 million football department cap. North Melbourne headed to Utah in November in a scaled down manner to previous trips — first-to-fourth-year and a handful of older players — and only with the financial support of several executives who paid handsomely to tag along.

Carlton was first to dip a toe in the sand, so to speak, of the hotted-up alternative with a 2011 trip to Qatar and Abu Dhabi. When Port Adelaide followed suit with a UAE excursion, the Power's head of high performance Darren Burgess knew from several visits to the Middle East ahead of the Socceroos 2010 World Cup campaign that there would be significant physiological gains.

"We'd been there in the middle of summer monitoring the [Socceroos] guys really closely, and after a couple of weeks I noticed their heart-rate responses were outstanding," Burgess said. "After a little bit of adaptation time they could get through a lot more work, they were adapting to heat."

The Bulldogs have been buoyed by similar results, returning from what new physical performance manager Mathew Inness said was essentially a shift of normal training from Whitten Oval to the Sunshine Coast with immediate improvement. The Dogs flew through their first training run back home this week - the biggest of their pre-season - having managed only 60 percent of the load in a similar session in Mooloolaba's heat and humidity.

Burgess says the positive effects of heat training have long been well known, the harsher environment forcing the body to adapt and producing greater output. Altitude clearly works too, but the benefits of trekking the Grand Canyon in November are long gone by the time the first ball is bounced in March.

Collingwood first journeyed to Arizona in 2005. Six years later Blake McLean, now strength coach with NRL club Wests Tigers, started a joint PhD position with the Magpies to quantify their players' responses. Data from a 2011 trip to Arizona and another to Utah the following year were compared to players who stayed home.

"We definitely showed an improved performance from our guys who went to altitude compared to our guys completing similar training in Melbourne," McLean said.

"You definitely get an increase in haemoglobin mass, or your red blood cells, somewhere in the vicinity of four-to-five per cent for a 20-day camp. But that change in haemoglobin mass is back to baseline levels after four weeks back at sea level."

Burgess notes a knock-on benefit — dubbed "training camp effect" — of players being stimulated by the changed environment, focused solely on training without distraction, and bonding through the down-time spent together. "So whether the improved performance was due to the physiological changes or just as much due to the training camp effect, we can't really say."

Either way, the Magpies took a more local approach in 2013 and confine their altitude training to a room at the Holden Centre that can fit 40 people and simulate an environment up to 5000 metres above sea level.

A club's pre-season window influences its travel plans. Port went back to the UAE at the end of 2014, staying as guests of the Sheikh (through Burgess's soccer connection) at the best facility he'd ever seen – training surfaces like Wembley, multiple pools, jaw-dropping change rooms and gymnasium, protein shakes and meals cooked by the Sheikh's personal chef.

They were booked to go back this pre-season, but after missing the finals - and with the group having attained the desired aerobic level at the end of a three-year program - there wasn't the urgency of previous years to cram in a volume of work.

So they trained in the less-luxurious confines of Alberton, and on 40-degree Adelaide days had all the stimulus they needed.

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