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Up In The Air – the performance of the Wanderers in 2013/14

AWThe 2013/14 season for Western Sydney Wanderers fell slightly short of their impressive first season in the A-League. Having finished runners up to Brisbane Roar in the league, they were denied again by Brisbane with an extra time defeat in the Championship game.  In addition to their domestic campaign, Western Sydney started their first Asian Champions League (ACL) campaign.  Being so close, but yet so far away, from repeating their success, an analysis of their season may allude to where things went slightly awry.

One difference between the two seasons was the amount of travelling required.  Domestic travel is part and parcel of Australia’s expansive geography.  However, combining this with regular trips to Asia, it begs the question whether there could be a compound effect.

In order to understand the issues, the science of air travel needs to be considered and how it can impact on the performance of professional athletes.  There have been many studies conducted on the effects of air travel. A 2013 review by the British Journal of Sports Medicine explored air travel and professional athlete’s performance.

The science of air travel shows that there are three main effects: changes to the circadian rhythm (body clock), depletion of oxygen from the body (hypoxia), and lethargy in limbs due to lack of exercise.  The human body runs on a circadian rhythm of 25-26 hours so crossing of time zones changes sleeping patterns.  The effect of this (‘jet lag’) is that cells in the body change abruptly and therefore stop the body functioning efficiently.  The review made reference to two separate studies that looked at travel and team performance in sports.  One study, of Major League Baseball in North America, demonstrated a correlation between travelling through time zones and decreasing numbers of games won.

Looking at the Wanderers’ 2013-14 performances, after travelling, does suggest that there may be some credence to the studies.  The home winning percentage, after returning from away games, is 46% (won 6, drawn 5, lost 2).  Compared to their overall win percentage of 56% then it may suggest a connection.  Staggeringly, home games won without travel (i.e. back to back) shoots up to 80%.  The BJSM review suggested that travelling from east to west was less detrimental to performance than travelling the other way.  Western Sydney did slightly better because their win-draw-loss record, after west to east journeys, was W4-D2-L2 compared to W0-D1-L0 for east to west journeys.  A calculation of their air travel last season suggests that they racked up over 50,000 air miles.  Another way to look at this is that they spent close to 5 days in the air merely travelling to games.

Seeking a knowledgeable opinion, I spoke to Dr Craig Duncan who is an expert in the field of sports medicine.  He is senior lecturer in sport science at the Australian Catholic University (ACU), has worked extensively in football in Australia, and most recently was director of performance for the New South Wales State of Origin team.

“There is no doubt travel can have a significant impact on the circadian rhythm and thus performance. Efficient sleep should be a major priority for any athlete as there is no use striving for 1% advantages if sleep is inefficient. Travel and change of time zones can affect the hormonal balance and thus sleep. Poor sleep increases fatigue and therefore leads to a decrease in performance and increased risk of injury. A systematic approach to travel can decrease these negative effects.”

Taking a methodical approach regarding travelling can involve several different methods.  One way of arresting the effects of jet lag is to take melatonin.  Followers of AFL will be aware of melatonin, as this is the drug that Essendon’s James Hird got into trouble with as part of a wider doping story.  It isn’t a banned substance on World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) or Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency (ASADA) lists.  Dr Duncan has considered other factors that need to be addressed:

“I always advise athletes to limit the consumption of food and caffeinated beverages during travel. It’s also vital that athletes remain hydrated by primarily drinking water. It is also imperative not to drink alcoholic beverages during this time.”

Reduced oxygen pressure in air travel does have a short term debilitating effect on athletes.  “Modern commercial airliners fly with a cabin altitude of between 4,000 and 8,000 feet when at cruising altitude, which means a reduction in ambient pressure of the order of 20% compared with sea level and a consequent reduction in blood oxygen saturation of about 10%” (‘Your Patient and Air Travel – A Guide to Physicians’ from British Airways Health Services).  Dr Duncan put this in the perspective of professional athlete compared to the general public:

“The effects of travel have similar effects on athletes as general public – however people who have a superior physiological status will adapt to travel demands quicker. The major difference is that athletes travel and then need to perform where many [in the] general public travel and then can relax.”

I wanted to know what other issues would be relevant with air travel.  Again, Dr Duncan provided his expertise:

“Obviously, sitting for long periods increases stiffness and if players have issues with lower back they will also be compromised. To try to minimise this, it’s important to get athletes to move (e.g. stretch at regular intervals and during stop-overs). There are some other products that can help this process as well that stimulate muscle and the nervous system that are beneficial.”

The man who has the responsibility for keeping Western Sydney’s players fit is Adam Waterson.  Adam is their Strength and Conditioning Coach and I sought his opinion on the challenges encountered last season. “Squad rotation was a key asset for us last season.  Each player knew their role and was at a fitness level where they could just step in and do their job.” Adam also reiterated the point on getting ‘in tune’ with time zones as soon as game and travel plans would allow.

Success and travel are interconnected in modern football and, therefore, are just one more factor to deal with.  Western Sydney Wanderers have evolved quickly as a new force in Australian football.  This success for a young team undoubtedly means steep learning curves.  I am convinced that the challenges to be faced by the Wanderers, and the other ACL participants in this coming season, will be tackled as part of a constant improvement cycle.  The scientific effects of air travel can’t be overcome, but they can be managed.

People like Adam Waterson will be challenged to manage these situations and they will have to cope with more fixtures, with the inaugural FFA Cup now being played.  It is safe to argue that Australian teams are automatically at a disadvantage due to the distances required to travel for domestic games.  For example, Perth to Wellington is a flight time of around 7 hours.  I would contend that teams playing in the European Champions League wouldn’t have such a flight time, let alone for a domestic fixture.

Sports science can’t change geography, but it can try to fight the by-products of it.

Photo Credit: Adam Waterson

About the author

avatarJonathan is a freelance writer, and contributor to Ultimate A-League.

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