The FIFA World Cup, a soccer festival held once every four years, kicked off in the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar on March 20 (midnight Japan time on March 21), and the Japanese national team, which will be making its seventh consecutive appearance at the tournament, beat the four-time World Cup champions, Germany, 2-1. The Japanese team, which will be making its seventh consecutive appearance at the World Cup, beat Germany 2-1 to secure a historic three points, despite conceding an early goal to the German team, a difficult opponent that has won four previous World Cups.
Of the 26 players called up to Japan’s squad for this year’s tournament, there is a “secret room” where eight players, including Junya Ito, a fast winger who is the mainstay of the attack, have been training. It is the high-altitude training studio “Hiarti. More than 200 professional soccer players, including not only Japanese national team players but also J-League players, are said to be its users. We interviewed the founder, Koichi Shinden, to find out why they go to HIALCH.
All eight players took the pitch against Germany.
Ito went to the “HIALCHI” Center Kita store in Yokohama City. It is located a minute’s walk from the Yokohama City Subway’s Center Kita Station. At first glance, the training equipment in the training room looks like that of an ordinary gym, a far cry from the term “high-altitude training. However, the training room is located at an altitude of 2,500 meters, with the same oxygen concentration as the fifth station of Mt. Fuji. It is said that while going to high altitude increases cardiopulmonary function due to the increase in red blood cells, it also decreases muscle strength due to the lack of strenuous exercise. The concept was that if muscular strength was going to decline, then training on the ground and training at high altitude could be done in parallel, and the first “HIARTI” studio was built in Japan. All seven players who used this facility, except for Ito, took the pitch against Germany.
Junya Ito first visited in the summer of 2021, when he was playing for Genk in the Belgian First Division. It was off duty and he was returning to Japan. Ito’s classmates from Kanagawa University were “Hiarti” users, and they recommended it to him.
When Ito first arrived, he had been drinking heavily the day before and wasn’t in very good condition (laughs). (Laughs.) I was just like, ‘My friend invited me, so I’m here,’ but the next day, Ito contacted me and said, ‘I want to play seriously. From there, until I returned to Belgium, I made time to train at “HIALCH” as much as I could.
Ito’s first season at Hiarti was an awakening for him, and since the summer of 2021 he has been selected for Japan’s national team, scoring goals in four consecutive games in the final Asian qualifying rounds for the World Cup, making him an indispensable player for the national team.
After finishing his season with Genk in May 2022, Ito reappeared in the summer just in time to move to Stade Reims in the French First Division. Ito told Nitta that he was ready to train off the field, saying, “If I move to a new club, I definitely want to train off the field because the level will definitely be higher.
He said, “I’ve heard that foreign clubs have teams that train at a higher intensity and separate physical levels from the beginning of the new season. If I can improve my condition during the off-season and join the team, I can train with a group with a higher physical level from the beginning. This naturally brings them closer to a regular position.
Ito and Nitta had one goal in mind as they trained for the Winter World Cup: to get a regular role in their new home, and then play at the World Cup.
We talked about eliminating the so-called “Junya time” that disappears during games. Being able to go faster than others means consuming batteries faster than others, so you tend to get tired easily. What we talked about with Ito was to increase the number of sprints throughout the 90 minutes. To do so means recovering from fatigue at twice the speed of a person. If he recovers faster, he can increase the number of sprints without losing his speed, which is Ito’s weapon, even in the latter half of the match. Therefore, we focused on increasing the range (distance) of sprints within 7 seconds.
Even for black players, who are known for their high physical ability, training is the only way to increase their recovery speed, but surprisingly few people in the soccer world focus on training in this area. The reality is that even professional soccer players are at the level of junior high school track and field athletes when it comes to running alone. In other words, there is a lot of room for growth in “running” training that is not being addressed.
The more you train your cardiopulmonary function and lactate tolerance, which is called the glycolytic system, the more you train, the more changes will occur. In fact, Eliud Kipchoge, the world record holder in the men’s marathon, broke the world record at the age of 37. I think Ito can also continue to grow.
Kaoru Mitoma and Ao Tanaka also “love it.
Ito, who has achieved results in the past year since he started coming to the studio, has, above all, changed his mindset.
When I met him a year ago, he seemed a bit flustered, but when I met him this summer, he was full of confidence. To be honest, Ito is neither serious nor stoic in his training, but I have the impression that he is more determined to play soccer than anyone else.
Ito returned to Japan with confidence, and during the summer off in 2022, he spent five days under Nitta’s tutelage. Ito, who returned to Japan in the summer of 2022, spent five days under Nitta’s tutelage during the summer off-season.
On the first day of training, I was so fatigued that I had to rest for more than an hour before I could move. We increase the intensity of training from the first day, but even so, by the fifth day, I recover so quickly that I can rest for 10 minutes and go home. The numbers clearly show that fatigue is reduced even though the training is obviously hard, and not only Ito but also the other participants have realized that ‘things have really changed.
At the same time as Ito, Kaoru Mitoma and Ao Tanaka, two of Ito’s colleagues from Japan’s World Cup team in Qatar, also trained together this summer.
Both Ito and Misato have an overwhelmingly high sprinting top speed compared to other professional soccer players. Their top speed is world-class, so we are training them to keep that speed up for 90 minutes.
In training before the season starts, we increase their physical abilities at once. However, the season lasts nearly 10 months, so the effects of training slowly diminish. For this reason, Misumi and Tanaka bring machines to England and Germany that create a hypoxic environment, and they continue “high-altitude” training during the season. In-season training works to keep the effects in check. In a sense, you could call it ‘legal doping.
The men who have struggled in special studios with little oxygen in order to surprise the world are now making their mark on the pitch in Qatar.
Reporting by Noriyuki Okuyama： Noriyuki Okuyama