The modern game of football is now played at unprecedented levels of intensity and finding the balance between training and matchdays has become a potential minefield as medical and performance teams strive to avoid the cumulative effects of fatigue and the subsequent reduction in player performance. Recovery and rehabilitation has never been under such a high level of scrutiny and any solution that can have a positive impact is worthy of investigation. It is to that end that an increasing number of soccer clubs are adopting Whole Body Cryotherapy (WBC) as part of their regimen. So what is the science behind this treatment?
Whole Body Cryotherapy is a cold therapy treatment. The players are placed in a specially designed unit and exposed to air cooled to temperatures as low as -150°C for a period of up to 4 minutes. The air is cooled by liquid nitrogen. The origins of Whole Body Cryotherapy can be traced to 1989 in Japan where Professor Yamauchi used a chamber to treat the effects of rheumatism in his patients. This treatment was, in due course, extended to other inflammatory conditions and has been adopted as part of national medical treatment in Poland and Ukraine. In time, Whole Body Cryotherapy was used by elite sports teams visiting Polish training camps and its adoption by the Welsh rugby team brought the treatment into the spotlight. Now cryotherapy is used widely across soccer clubs in English Premier League (Leicester City FC, Watford FC, Manchester City FC, AFC Sunderland, Tottenham Hotspur FC, Arsenal FC, Stoke City FC, Everton FC, Newcastle United FC, Norwich City FC), English Championship teams such as Hull FC, Bundesliga team, Ligue 1 teams as well as teams in US Major Soccer League.
So how does it work? In the extreme cold conditions of a Whole Body Cryotherapy chamber, the body has physiological responses to exposure that is triggered by the sudden decrease in skin temperature. The body’s core temperature is normally between 36-37°C and will always attempt to maintain this temperature. When the brain receives signals registering the extreme low temperature, it recognises the impossibility of maintaining the core temperature if normal blood circulation is maintained in the outer layers of the skin. Receptors below the surface of the skin then direct the body’s nervous system to carry out a process called vasoconstriction – a narrowing of the arteries and blood vessels. The process leads to a reduction in the flow of blood to tired or damaged tissue, effectively shutting down the inflammation process and the development of swelling or bruising around an injury.
At the same time, blood is retained in the body’s core and is flushed through the normal cycle and becomes enriched with oxygen, enzyme and nutrients as well as receiving an influx of hormones via the body’s endocrine system.
Once the brain identifies that a “normal temperature’ is reached, having exited the chamber and undertaken light exercise, the reverse process called vasodilation then returns the now enriched blood from the core to the extremities. This process coupled with the release of hormones provide for a rush of endorphins, promoting a feeling of wellbeing and positivity in the player.
The treatment aids muscle recovery by decreasing cell growth and reproduction and increasing cellular survival. Boosting the player’s immunity can be the difference in ensuring their availability in the cold of an away fixture during the winter.
Other tangible benefits have been identified through usage of Whole Body Cryotherapy, one such is a general reduction in decreased joint pain. The modern game of football is quite attritional with many player reporting “knocks’ or “stiffness” but having no obvious sign of injury.
An aspect of research that is growing in importance is that of sleep recovery.Whole Body Cryotherapy has been shown to have a positive impact on the quality of sleep but also improving relaxation and mood. Just the tonic for a few football managers as well as soccer players!
The application of Whole Body Cryotherapy provides benefits to the players in the form of an expedited programme of recovery and rehabilitation to keep players on the pitch and off the physiotherapist’s table but there are also benefits to the club. As Whole Body Cryotherapy is a short treatment, it can be introduced midway through a training day, unlike other cold treatments, providing opportunities for players to have more time with the coaching staff. It also enables the training to be carried out at a heightened intensity levels.
Whole Body Cryotherapy is now becoming commonplace in the professional football game and for the reasons highlighted above, it will soon be a case of the soccer clubs without a Whole Body Cryotherapy chamber being the exception to the rule.