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Breathing Easy: James Rodríguez builds the stamina he needs to strike

Real Madrid's James Rodríguez uses his home country's high altitude to get an edge in training.

Athletes have never been more aware of what their bodies need in order to reach peak performance. Fuel Illustrated is a collaboration between Gatorade and the SI Overtime branded content studio exploring how the best athletes in the world manage their daily clock—training, diet, competition and recovery—as they strive for excellence in their chosen sports.

Situated 11,932 feet above sea level, the Hernando Siles stadium in La Paz provides a distinct home-field advantage. Bolivia’s national soccer team, ranked 79th in the world, is accustomed to playing in thin air, and has leveraged that to beat powerhouses Argentina and Brazil. “Oxygen is not as readily available to saturate the red blood cells, so the muscles fatigue at a quicker rate,” says Ralph Reiff, a member of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association and the executive director of St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis. For visiting players, “feeling out of breath is very common.” 

That breathless feeling is common at any altitude in a sport with a nonstop pace that demands stamina analogous to endurance swimming, running and cycling. “The difference is the change of pace in soccer,” says Reiff. “Going from flat to a jog, to a high-intensity sprint.”

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For some players, such as Colombian playmaker James Rodríguez, building that stamina is the key to success. Rodríguez proved himself one of the world’s best attacking midfielders at the 2014 World Cup, leading his country to its first quarterfinal with a 25-yard left-footed volley to beat Uruguay. Known simply as James, the baby-faced number 10 was the tournament’s top scorer, with six goals, and he also covered the most ground on his team, averaging 5.7 miles a match. “In my position, you have long stretches of running, so I’ve learned to pace myself in order to keep a high work rate for 90 minutes,” says James, 24, who also plays for Real Madrid in Spain’s La Liga.

A free-kick specialist, James balances endurance with strength training, and he works hard to hone his most valuable weapon: “My left foot is one of my virtues, and I always work to perfect it. If you work on your virtues in practice, things come out naturally in the game.” He also takes a broader approach: Although James does not want to build bulk that would slow him, he still needs a strong, muscular physique to efficiently manage his 165 lbs., 5'9” frame. He challenges himself to adapt to a higher workload, focusing heavily on cardiovascular fitness.

“He can train for a higher level of endurance with his own body weight, then add resistance with weights to increase muscle fibers,” says Reiff. “You balance that with endurance-type training. Instead of doing five reps of heavy weights, you do weights that let you maximize 12–15 reps.”

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Along with the athletic trainers who work on his cardio fitness, a nutritionist helps him stay at his ideal weight, and fuel up for and during games. That typically means high-carb food three hours before games, then another carb or protein boost, such as crackers or fruit, at halftime.

The approach is working. That was evident when Colombia went to La Paz to play Bolivia in March for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. “Obviously I was out of breath in certain stretches of the match,” says James, whose powerful left shot opened the scoring in a 3–2 win. “But physically I felt very well, and so did my teammates. That’s why we won.”