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To prepare for Tokyo’s weather, Belgium’s field hockey team trained in a heat chamber.

To prepare for Tokyo’s weather, Belgium’s field hockey team trained in a heat chamber.
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To prepare for Tokyo’s weather, Belgium’s field hockey team trained in a heat chamber.

To prepare for Tokyo’s weather, Belgium’s field hockey team trained in a heat chamber.

TOKYO – Perhaps the most prominent athletes at all of the Tokyo Olympics are field hockey goalies.

Consider the conditions in Tuesday’s semi-final between Belgium and India: a heat index of 100 degrees, an artificial turf pitch, little to no cloud cover or wind, and a start at 10:30 am. Weft.

Now listen to what Belgian goalkeeper Vincent Vanasch wore during the 5-2 victory at the Oi hockey stadium: a helmet, a black long-sleeved jersey, shorts and protections on the hands, shoulders, chest, knees, shins and feet – useful with a soaring balloon but not for Tokyo summers.

“Inside it’s 50 degrees,” Vanasch, 33, said. From Celsius, this translates to approximately one million degrees Fahrenheit. (Actually 122.) He continued, “But you’re just facing this.”

The many things the second-ranked Belgian team did to face the heat in Tokyo took them away from a win of their first Olympic gold. And it all started in what is essentially a heat chamber at a home college.

Mick Beunen, a former Belgian national player who has overseen the team’s training since 2010, studied physical education and training science at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. There he met Peter Hespel, professor of exercise physiology and sports nutrition.

Beunen, 49, previously sent players to the university’s Athletic Performance Center, run by Hespel, for assessments. But in anticipation of the sweltering humidity and heat in Tokyo, he sent all potential players to the national team last year.

In an “environmental facility,” Hespel said in an email, they can simulate conditions between 12 and 40 degrees Celsius (around 54 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit) and elevations ranging from sea level to around 7,000 meters. They set conditions at 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) and 70% relative humidity on a typical summer day in Tokyo, and asked players to practice to mimic the tension of a game.

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Experts measured sweat rate, sweat composition, body and skin temperatures, as well as players’ perceptions of fatigue and overheating, Hespel said. From there, he said, they created a ranking of all the players based on their risk of fatigue, illness or heat-related injury, and the coaches created “acclimatization plans.” heat ”specific to each player.

The data, Beunen said, was not used to eliminate players, but rather to identify those who have been hit the most by the heat and to help them improve.

“We just want to be the fittest team, so a lot of work has been done over the years to make everyone better,” he said in a phone interview.

The coaches of the Belgian teams also collected useful data in other ways. They check the temperature of the players before, during and after training. And since Beunen’s tenure began, he said, the team has used wearable technology to measure players’ heart rates, sprint speeds, distances run and other metrics that help coaches and coaches. coaches identify who is at higher risk for injury or who gets tired.

Beunen said the data, accessible in real time on a smartphone or tablet, allows him to help head coach Shane McLeod refine his substitution plan during games.

“If you see the numbers in hot weather, you can adapt to it and help the players get through it,” Beunen said.

The Belgian team, used to much cooler summers at home, also arrived in Japan early and trained in Hiroshima for a week to acclimatize.

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At the Olympics, Beunen said, players drink what he calls sludge – essentially electrolyte-rich drinks mixed with crushed ice – during games and before starting to run, to even lower body temperature slightly. Beyond that, Vanasch said, he only drank water from morning until night.

Fortunately, he doesn’t have to run on the pitch like his teammates, but Vanasch, the goalkeeper, has to wear a lot of equipment, so he wears a cooling vest underneath and applies a cooling spray as well. In Tuesday’s game, he changed into clean clothes at half-time.

The Belgian team really shone at the end of the match. Tied at 2 with India, fifth in three quarters, Belgium took a convincing lead in the final frame despite their seventh game in 11 days.

“We knew the conditions would be difficult,” said forward Cédric Charlier, 33, sweating after the victory. “We have trained harder, have done a lot of double workouts and are ready to take what we have inside.”

Thursday brings the toughest test: Belgium, who won silver at the 2016 Olympics, face top-ranked Australia. Beunen said the team’s success so far was proof that their preparations for the Olympics and the Heat were working. But even though Belgian players have competed in hot places like Australia and India, he said, the Tokyo Games were the “toughest tournament they’ve ever played”.

Fortunately, Vanasch said, the final match takes place at night in Tokyo, away from the daytime sun. “We are ready to shift to another gear,” he said.

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