Barry ahead of schedule in fitness race as England fly to high-altitude camp

City midfielder sleeping in oxygen tent to boost recovery time
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The Independent Football

England are encouraged by Gareth Barry's initial recuperation from ankle ligament damage and, as the squad flew out to Austria to begin their high-altitude preparations for the World Cup yesterday, Fabio Capello's staff were increasingly hopeful that he will join them there for their second acclimatisation spell there before the World Cup campaign gets under way.

Barry has brought forward the date of a critical medical examination of his ankle by six days to next Monday, the date of England's warm-up match with Mexico at Wembley, in the hope that he can defy preliminary medical expectations and make it into Capello's final 23-man squad. He is currently sleeping in an oxygen tent – at Manchester City's insistence, rather than England's – and although the 29-year-old did not join the England contingent which arrived in Austria around 1pm yesterday, he will be examined next week by James Calder, the top orthopaedic surgeon in the country, with hopes that he will be able to make the flight back out to Austria, 48 hours after the Mexico game, and join the build-up for the last pre-tournament match, against Japan in Graz's UPC Arena a week on Sunday.

Barry's use of an oxygen tent mirrors David Beckham's preparations for the 2002 tournament after fracturing a bone in his left foot. Sleeping in a reduced-oxygen, or hypoxic, environment stimulates the production of red blood cells, which deliver oxygen to the muscles. This will not speed up Barry's recovery from injury but it will mean he can maintain his fitness and prepare himself for a high-altitude environment without having to train.

Also missing from the initial contingent were John Terry, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and David James, whose FA Cup final efforts on Saturday warranted an extra day off.

With no disruption from volcanic ash, the flight out to Austria went remarkably smoothly – in contrast with the buffeting the FA has had at home. Capello is now seeking some solace at a height of 2,400 feet in the small north-west town of Irdning.

His players were not the only ones yesterday seeking to benefit from training at the kind of altitudes they will encounter in South Africa – ranging from 2,165 feet in the agricultural hub of Nelspruit to more than a mile above sea level in Johannesburg. Italy will soon gather at the ski resort of Sestrière at nearly 6,000 feet.

England, who are being advised by the London Altitude Centre, have decided against using oxygen tents to prepare players for high altitudes as research suggests that athletes need to spend 10 or more hours a day in the tents to benefit from increased red-blood-cell production. Instead, the players will use breathing masks which pump out diluted oxygen; the masks were devised by a New York company, Hypoxico, which is also supplying them to other sides, including Japan.

Opinion is divided on the importance of altitude preparation for South Africa. Jiri Dvorak, the chief medical officer for Fifa, the sport's world governing body, said in February that altitude was "not an issue which will significantly impact on the players' health or performance".

But Michael Davison, a director of the London Altitude Centre, said altitude training was important and that Fifa's position was based on different arguments. "When teams look for advice to Fifa, it says the altitude issue doesn't exist," Davison said. "They can't let teams come back and say, 'We've had two or three group games at altitude and this other team had one.' It has to be seen as a level playing field."

With players running between six and eight and a half miles in a match, the effects of altitude include faster heart rates, less oxygen in the bloodstream and reduced power. A player taking part in England's first match, against the United States in Rustenburg (4,920 feet), without first adjusting to altitude, could suffer a 10 per cent reduction in performance, according to the London Altitude Centre.

The United States also considered a pre-World Cup training camp at altitude in Europe, but after consulting with the US Olympic Committee, coach Bob Bradley decided to train for two weeks on the US East Coast at or near sea level. Sea-level preparation allows athletes to train hard and recover quickly, while at higher altitudes, where the air is less dense, it becomes harder to absorb oxygen into the vascular system. Bradley calculates that by leaving for South Africa on 30 May, four days before England, his squad will be perfectly prepared for the tournament.

Other nations have different plans. Mexico hopes it will already have an advantage as its squad are accustomed to playing at an altitude of 7,200 foot in Mexico City, while France will do its altitude work at the French ski resort of Tignes before taking up a base near seal level in South Africa – a surprising decision, according to Davison.

The southern hemisphere's low humidity could also affect performance in South Africa. Some teams are expected to place humidifiers in players' rooms and to provide flu shots.