After their first two World Cup games, the outcome of the Canadian men’s national team games is somewhat predictable. They’ll start off strong, with a high press, lots of energy, and ruthless attacking. Their missed penalty against Belgium and early goal against Croatia attest to this. However, as the clock winds down, the pitch gets muddied, and the distance travelled increases, they seem to be more sluggish, a shell of the team that you saw at the beginning of the game. Why is this the case? Why can’t the damn team just string together 90 minutes of good soccer? The answer to this question is fatigue — which can be exacerbated by the harsh Qatari heat. 

It seems like the air conditioning system Qatar has implemented is working, as the temperature during Canada’s game against Belgium was 21 degrees Celsius at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Doha, and 24 degrees Celsius at Khalifa International Stadium against Croatia. Typically, temperatures in Qatar reach 29 degrees Celsius in November. 

The Varsity interviewed an exercise physiology professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education, Ira Jacobs, to get a look into how athletes can beat the heat in Qatar. 

“When we exercise we generate a lot more heat than when we are sedentary, primarily as a by-product of the increased metabolism necessary to fuel exercising muscles.” Jacobs wrote  when asked about the effect of sport on body temperature. However, a stable body temperature becomes harder to achieve when the body is exposed to extreme heat. 

“The warmer the temperature around us is, the slower is the rate at which humans can transfer heat out of the body and it becomes increasingly difficult to stabilise internal body temperature at a safe level,” wrote Jacobs.

If you ever notice the players during the World Cup becoming more sluggish and lackadaisical in the later parts of the second half, it’s due to the fact that this heat leads to metabolic processes slowing down in the long run.

“Usually, such an increase is accompanied by symptoms that cause us to slow down, if not stop exercising and thereby reduce the rate of metabolic heat production,” wrote Jacobs.

However, there is a silver lining for some players; certain individuals are more accustomed to heat than others, and this may create a significant advantage on matchdays. 

“Aerobically fit individuals, such as the soccer athletes participating in the FIFA World Cup, have several physiological adaptations to their training that enable them to tolerate a greater heat stress before body temperature regulation becomes compromised,” Jacobs wrote. Some of these adaptations include greater blood volume, greater density of sweat glands on the skin, less body fat to impede the transfer of heat, and overall tolerance to heat before exhaustion takes place. 

Jacobs stressed the importance of undertaking some form of heat acclimation training for athletes to be able to perform well under the scorching Qatari sun: “If one also engages in light-to-moderate exercise each day in a hot climate, then acclimation is optimised and can be achieved within 10-14 days.” With a bit of training, you too can change your body to function better when being exposed to extreme heat, which is quite incredible. 

The research on athletes’ heat adaptability and the direct correlation to the results of soccer games is limited, as soccer is a game of skill, effort, and a little bit of luck. But next time you see your favourite player miss a penalty, whiff a pass, or slip on the pitch, ask yourself how much of that could be due to their bodies’ metabolic processes.