Real Madrid left the cold winter (!) of Australia behind for the more hot and humid conditions in China, and in doing so join Rayo Vallecano and Atletico Madrid in visiting the Land of the Dragon this summer.
After leaving Melbourne, Real now face Inter Milan in Guangzhou on Monday and then AC Milan in Shanghai this Thursday. China certainly seems to be the destination of choice for the Madrid clubs this year; and not content with just going there on tour, Real are reportedly signing Chinese under-19 star Lin Liangming from Guangzhou while Rayo Vallecano have also recruited international forward Zhang Chengdong from Beijing Guoan.
Atletico and Rayo Vallecano, though, have completed the majority of their pre-season preparations in Europe; with Rayo Vallecano just back from making the short trip to Germany. Atletico will also be in the Far East soon, playing in Japan first before going on to China in August; while Rayo Vallecano will meet La Liga rivals Real Sociedad in Nanjing on Wednesday.
None of the other Madrid clubs however, including Getafe (who are in England for their pre-season games) will have had to contend with the changing environmental factors that Real Madrid's players are experiencing. Rafa's team will have trained and played in three different climates in just over as many weeks by time they head to Germany to face Tottenham; that game will be followed by playing either AC Milan or Bayern Munich the next day. Additionally there's the northern lights of Scandinavia to look forward to when Real meet Valerenga in Norway in the final game of the travelling preparations.
There's no doubt that all the climatic changes will have an effect on the body. Real's fitness staff were talking the other day about how muscles are that bit tighter in the colder weather and that a lot of emphasis was needed on warming-up correctly. It was also mentioned that the problem in returning to Europe after Australia would be dehydration and heatstroke; but dehydration can be a problem anytime and prevention of excess fluid loss leading to this has to be factored in to the overall plan as part of the normal routine.
It was good to see that the match in China on Saturday between the two Milan clubs was interspersed with water breaks. This is an aspect of the game that football doesn't allow for as much as it should; although it's getting better. In some Spanish fixtures last season the temperature on the pitch reached 35C; and in those conditions water breaks are an essential rather than a luxury.
Fluid replacement is something, I think, that other sports do better than football. In Australia it's the Rugby League season at the moment, and dehydration is also a problem for the players in that code of football. However, other sports play by different rules and therein lies the difference. In Rugby League the physiotherapists are allowed access to the field during the actual play, for example, and the game doesn't normally stop for routine injuries; it's only if someone is injured badly that the game will be held up.
The trainers too can enter the field while the game is in progress (but only at certain times) and they've always got a bottle of water handy. Despite the colder weather in Australia compared to China or Madrid, fluid replacement is still required and the water carriers in Rugby League are important members of the team on match days.
I'm not advocating that this should happen in football since clearly it wouldn't be practical to have people running on and off the pitch all the time, but I do think that the authorities need to find a happy medium in this respect between football and the other sports. Taking in adequate amounts of water is vital if dehydration is to be avoided; although the thinking on how much water to actually drink has changed in recent times. It's not so long ago that players were being made to ‘drink to order', and at one point it seemed like getting the fluid on to the field to the players almost became an obsession.
Today, the thinking is that ingesting too much water can actually be fatal and some tragic cases of this have been recorded in marathon running and American Football. Professor Timothy Noakes, a leading exercise physiologist and an ultra-marathon runner himself, has published extensively on this topic and highlighted the dangers of over-hydration leading to the life-threatening condition of exercise-associated hyponatremia (EAH). This condition occurs when attempting to prevent dehydration by drinking too much water leads to excess water retention, and the sodium balance in the body is then disturbed.
Players often feel that they have to drink copious amounts of water to counteract the risk of dehydration. However Professor Noakes explains that with EAH an abnormal water retention reduces the sodium concentration in the blood and the excess fluid moves to the tissues leading to swelling which can even include the brain. For years we were told that by the time you feel thirsty, then you are already dehydrated. Now this is being questioned and the fitness people are saying that you should be guided by your own individual thirst levels as opposed to drinking for the sake of it.
While dehydration does indeed lead to heatstroke, there are various stages to go through before true heatstroke actually occurs, and the Madrid players will be well monitored to prevent this happening. Heatstroke occurs when the body temperature reaches 40C or above; but leading up to that are the symptoms of light-headedness, muscle cramps, and cardio-respiratory distress which result in heat exhaustion before the core temperature gets to 40C. Once this happens, immediate cooling and urgent medical attention is essential as heatstroke is life-threatening.
The whole subject of thermoregulation is a discipline in itself within the field of sports science, and is affected by many different factors that players need to be aware of. Although overheating during exercise can result from taking in too little fluid, the quality and texture of the kits worn can also retain body heat instead of allowing adequate ventilation; plus individual fitness levels are always important.
Perhaps the biggest of all the external influences though is the amount of humidity present in the air which inhibits the body's ability to evaporate sweat. Allowing the sweat to evaporate on the skin instead of towelling it off is a far more efficient way of maintaining core temperature during exercise.
Reuters reported that the humidity during the Milan game in Shenzhen was reported to have been 85% at one point; and this is likely to be on a par with Guangzhou on Monday. The hottest temperatures there are in July and August with humidity levels reaching 84% at times. It's also the thunderstorm season in that part of China at the moment so it will be interesting to see what lies ahead!