Italy is four days into its World Cup training camp and players are already reporting a series of physical ailments: headaches, dehydration, nausea and problems sleeping — with shortness of breath the least of the worries.
That's all to be expected when the squad's "base camp" is at an elevation of 2,035 metres.
"At 1,800 metres and up, altitude sickness is normal," team physician Dr. Enrico Castellacci said. "At that elevation, you tire quicker if the body is not accustomed to it. Oxygen pressure is lower and heart rates and breathing levels increase."
The Azzurri chose to train for the World Cup in Sestriere — the resort where Alpine skiing was contested at the 2006 Turin Olympics — to prepare for playing games at high altitude in South Africa, where some stadium elevations exceed 1,524 metres.
'As the body adapts more we can start training normally.' —Enrico Castellacci, Italy's team doctor
The climate in Sestriere is also similar to that in South Africa's winter, sunny and warm during the day and much cooler at night, when the mercury often falls to near freezing level.
The Azzurri got a firsthand taste of the climate in South Africa when they were eliminated after the group phase of last year's Confederations Cup.
"I remember the players reporting they were out of breath even after one short running burst," Castellacci said. "That's why we decided to come here."
The surrounding mountains in Sestriere are still covered with snow.
"It's definitely strange to prepare for a World Cup beside the snow. But this will help us understand the challenges we're going to face down in South Africa," captain Fabio Cannavaro said.
"Those of us that were there last year remember how cold it gets, as well as the rain. We're lucky enough in Italy to have nice, high mountains and we're taking advantage of them."
Germany is also training in northern Italy, while France has based itself in Tignes in the Rhone-Alpes region.
During a specialized training session Tuesday, Italy's players had monitors applied to their chests and held digital devices in their hands to check their heart rates as they ran laps around the field. There wasn't one drill involving a ball.
"You can feel the elevation. When you're running or accelerating, afterward it takes more time to recuperate," Cannavaro said. "We're trying to train at high intensity for shorter periods so we have more time to recuperate."
Body needs to adapt
Castellacci said the team has starting training at a "much slower" pace than it usually does.
"As the body adapts more we can start training normally. The plan is that after 15 days here we'll be ready to train like we always do," Castellacci said.
To take full advantage of the altitude camp, Italy will travel back and forth to upcoming friendlies in Brussels (vs. Mexico) and Geneva (vs. Switzerland) on the same day, so the players can sleep in Sestriere.
Players are also being asked to sleep in Sestriere during their few days off.
"The secret is to try and stay at altitude as much as possible," Castellacci said. "We don't have much time — just these 15 days."
Italy flies to South Africa on June 8 and will open against Paraguay on June 14. The other opponents in Group F are New Zealand and Slovakia.