MONTREAL – The Montreal Impact will face two opponents at Estadio Azteca in next Wednesday’s CONCACAF Champions League final first leg: Club America and the elevation.
Located at an altitude of around 7,500 feet, there’s far less oxygen in Mexico City than there is at sea-level in Montreal. The Impact have already been to Mexico once this season, for the CCL quarterfinals at Pachuca. For two-and-a-half weeks, they built their fitness there and adapted to the elevation in an even higher-altitude setting – Pachuca sits just shy of 8,000 feet above sea level.
This time, they’ll be in Mexico for a week, a significantly shorter acclimatization period but one that Impact fitness coach and performance manager Paolo Pacione feels is “good enough.”
Tasked with leading the Impact in their adaptation to Mexico City’s high altitude, Pacione provided MLSsoccer.com with his plan for helping the team adjust.
After the players trained in Montreal in the morning, Pacione requested that they have the best possible night of sleep. He hoped it would be enjoyable considering it was the last time they sleep in their own bed for a while.
Any MLS player will tell you that air travel is a source of stress you could do without when your body earns you a living. Pacione thus wants the players at their physical best when they board their flight to Mexico on Thursday afternoon.
“That’s why we’re not travelling first thing in the morning,” Pacione says. “That’s why it’s important to travel in the afternoon. That way, there’s no rush. Everybody can sleep in, do what they need to do, relax in-flight. Once we get there, we have enough time to be comfortable and not be rushed.”
In Mexico City, the weather will be nicer, and there’s plenty to do. But this is a business trip. Every hour of every day, the players’ job description is "taking care of my body."
It starts with what they ingest – for the next 24 hours, players will eat easy-to-digest foods only. Metabolism is higher at altitude, and the players don’t need to increase it some more by shoving junk down their throats.
Accompanying the Impact is Mario Di Molfetta, chef/owner of Capucine in Montreal. Di Molfetta works long hours cooking every meal and snack the players will have. The mandatory diet optimizes performance and recuperation, while not stressing the players to find choices on the road.
“We plan when meals are going to be a little bit heavier, more calorie intake, when it’s going to be lighter,” Pacione said. “One thing that’s important is watching the carbohydrates to proteins and fats [ratio]. It has to be higher, because at a higher altitude, the carbohydrates metabolize a lot faster. So we’re going to give them more opportunities to have more carbs as well.”
And Pacione gives them no opportunities to ingest alcohol. Even a short drink along with a meal is prohibited.
“Everybody’s an adult,” Pacione said. “They’ll have a glass of wine with dinner at home on a normal night, but here, you increase dehydration by doing so. Even caffeine needs to be limited, especially on harder training days.”
By now, most players can push their bodies more at altitude. To think, the Impact were supposed to be at Stade Saputo, playing Chicago on Saturday – the game has been postponed, giving the Impact the luxury of spending a full week in Mexico.
Through his experiences with Canada’s national teams, from 2007 to 2012, Pacione has experienced the effects of altitude in various settings. He also remains in contact with several physiologists who work in such environments with Olympic athletes.
“The few things to consider are sleep, rest, tapering our training. On the other hand is nutrition – how well-hydrated the guys are,” Pacione said. “Being at a higher altitude, the air is drier, you lose more fluids in training. That’s why training has to be tapered, and guys need to take care of their bodies in between sessions quite a bit more.”
Helping them doing so is Pacione’s secret weapon: beetroot juice, a vasodilator. Canada’s national teams use it to increase the blood flow, as do many Olympic athletes.
The staff introduced it in the players’ diet this preseason, mixing shots of it with other juices to ease the foul taste. Some gladly complied. Belgium international Laurent Ciman took some every day in Brazil during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Nigel Reo-Coker started drinking it during his time playing in England.
“You might have heard stories of [Ignacio] Piatti, when he went to Bolivia, they were taking Viagra before the game,” Pacione says. “[Beetroots juice] is a natural Viagra – not to the same potency, of course. But the fact is he took it, and he felt it right away. You get an energy boost from that.”
Wednesday – CCL final first leg
At this point, the Impact will have been in Mexico for almost a full week. The increase in red blood cells – helping endurance – when training at altitude is well-documented, but in this case, Montreal just want to minimize the underlying effects of altitude when they play América.
They will sustain no long-term cardiovascular benefit from this trip, and Pacione says they couldn’t even manage that with two-and-a-half weeks in the country in February.
“Within the same period of time that you’re there – two weeks later – [the extra endurance is] gone,” Pacione said. “There’s no residual improvement. But if you’re there for a month-and-a-half to two months, then yeah.”
Back to normal. The Impact leave the high altitude and return to Montreal, where they will be waiting for América to come to Olympic Stadium.
For the América players, dealing with altitude every day is normal. How will Montreal’s sea level affect them ahead of the second leg?
“They will feel a little bit of a benefit – more oxygen in the air for them,” Pacione said. “But it also is a significant change, and that has some effects to some people. They might feel sleepless. If you feel sleepless or uncomfortable, regardless of whether they are better circumstances or not, whether you’re at altitude or sea level, that interrupts training. That interrupts the way you feel. Those have significant effects.”