James Harmes during a Western Bulldogs match simulation session in Maroochydore on February 1, 2024. Picture: Western Bulldogs

THE THEME at Punt Road this summer can be summed up by the contents of a trailer travelling along the Princes Highway back from Gippsland in November. It wasn't quite the scene from The Hangover when Alan transports a giraffe behind his Mercedes-Benz convertible, but it was close. 

Tigers high performance boss Luke Meehan had the idea and leadership and culture consultant Shane McCurry did the dirty work, driving a few hours east to collect a pair of plastic life-size camels. One has remained in the meeting room inside the Swinburne Centre, the other has been shifted around the Richmond Football Club.

Adem Yze wishes he saw the camels cruising back to Melbourne on the back of the trailer, but the Tigers' new senior coach has embraced a heat training program over the pre-season that Meehan introduced at the end of 2022 after taking over the reins from Peter Burge. 

Previously viewed as the lazy way to get up a sweat, saunas have become a training tool at the Tigers – and at other Victorian clubs this summer – to increase the benefits of training during the warmer months, along with the heat room and in the spa. 

Players have regularly sat in the sauna for up to 45 minutes at the end of main training sessions across December, January and February that stretch beyond two hours. The general consensus at Richmond is they are the toughest part of the day. 

"No doubt it has been a focus. They have a rotation in the heat room or in the sauna or sitting in the spa for 45 minutes. The players have enjoyed it and worked their way through it. There is a bit in it with the science behind it. We used to travel to Mooloolaba at the Hawks to be exposed to the heat and humidity and test the players mentally. This is the way to do it in house," Yze told AFL.com.au.

Adem Yze poses for a photo during Richmond's team photo day on February 21, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

"Most footy clubs have a theme over the pre-season, whether it's a fitness theme or whether it's a footy theme. It is around our staff feeling like they belong and can thrive and have an impact. They started a heat program the year before. We've got a heat room and have been utilising a sauna and really testing how I players deal with the heat mentally. 

"The camels have actually created some connection in our club. There was this massive camel in the meeting room and I have my arm leaning on this camel when presenting. That almost broke the ice. The one that was out on the oval, it started in the gym and the players moved it into the pool area, so it was almost like the elf on the shelf, someone would move it every morning. I just wish I had a photo of Shane driving it back from Gippsland on a trailer."

New Western Bulldogs head of physical performance Daniel Duvnjak-Zaknich arrived at the Western Bulldogs at the start of the pre-season after moving from Greater Western Sydney where he spent 2023 as senior physical performance manager, following nine seasons as Fremantle's head of strength and conditioning.

The West Australian recently led the Bulldogs on a pre-season camp on the Sunshine Coast in the summer and is completing a PhD in heat physiology at the University of Western Australia, researching how best to use heat acclimation in a team sports environment.

Adem Yze addresses his players during Richmond's training session at Punt Road Oval on November 15, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Duvnjak-Zaknich said the reason some high performance departments have prescribed heat training and sauna usage across the pre-season is due to the benefits of increased time at critical core temperature.

"From a performance perspective, whenever you train in the heat, physiologically it's harder. The same session you get a higher heart rate response, a higher cardiovascular response. Naturally, it becomes a lot more effective as a training tool because you are working harder. It's not like you're doing any more work, but it is challenging your system more, you need to sweat more so you become more effective and efficient with your sweating response. That helps with your cooling, but you also get blood changes with plasma volume, that part of the blood will increase which will allow you to sweat more," Duvnjak-Zaknich said.

"Teams used to go to places like Colorado for two weeks at the back end of pre-seasons or pre-Christmas for the altitude benefits and once the research actually caught up, the altitude training was highly effective for the time you were there and then lasted for only a couple of weeks when you got home. Then it's done. Teams were spending a lot of money around these camps, but unless they could dose with altitude with a chamber and top-up, it really didn't fit a normal training programme.

"Whereas heat has always been there and the accessibility being in Australia helps. If you go to say Mooloolaba for a week then you're going to get a nice dose but then how do you top that up? There are active remedies with bike sessions in the heat chamber, but also passive remedies with a sauna or spa, which doesn't involve activity but you still get the potent nature of the heat stimulus."

Camels can withstand extreme heat. Yze plans for his Tigers to handle the heat this winter.