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Improving elite athlete recovery through cryotherapy

Northumbria university is a powerhouse of research connected to athletic performance and recovery. Through long-standing collaborations with the English Institute of Sport (EIS), that supports delivery of science and medicine to many Olympic athletes, Northumbria’s research-informed guidelines on using cryotherapy (cold therapy) have been embedded into athletes’ training across a range of sports. Recently, a novel cryotherapy intervention has been introduced which enables the use of “cold on-the-go recovery” while athletes are travelling between training and competition sites.   

Fast recovery from strenuous exercise is of utmost importance in elite sport, as it provides athletes with a competitive edge. Northumbria’s Department of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation specialises in athletic recovery research and the use of cryotherapy in elite sport. Although cryotherapy is widely used in sport, the mechanisms underpinning its effectiveness were poorly understood. In collaboration with the elite sport colleagues, Northumbria’s researchers, Professor Glyn Howatson, Dr Stuart Goodall and Dr Kirsty Hicks, investigated the physiological stress experienced by athletes during training and competition and created detailed guidelines on when to apply and when not to apply cryotherapy interventions for recovery. These guidelines were used and adopted by athletes across 23 sports to support recovery in the build-up, and throughout major competitions, such as 2016 Rio Olympics. However, the applied research and impact did not stop there. 

In 2017, in collaboration with colleagues Dr Mal McHugh and Dr Susan Kwiecien at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma in New York, Northumbria’s researchers developed a novel cryotherapy intervention. The traditional use of cryotherapy, mainly in the form of ice baths, was associated with a host of logistical issues linked to access and transport problems within training and competition environments. To circumvent these challenges, researchers developed bespoke shorts and calf/shoulder wraps that house Phase Change Material (PCM) modules, which maintain cold for a prolonged period of time. PCM modules are compact and easily transportable, cool quickly, and can be simultaneously used with whole squads for periods of up to six hours, facilitating recovery even while athletes are on-the-go (e.g., when travelling between training and competition venues). This intervention was so popular among athletes and support staff that all five EIS sites across the country were equipped with PCM, and in addition to recovery, are now being used for acute injury management. Our elite athletes are now incorporating PCM into their training and competition schedules and most recently the England football team are utilising this in competitive fixtures and tournaments, such as Euro 2020, to aide recovery between games. 

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