Team Behind The Team

Sports science intern Jack Birch is leading a ground-breaking study into the potential benefits of whole body cryotherapy
West Ham United’s Medical and Sports Science department has long been at the forefront of innovation when it comes to helping players recover after matches.

One method used by the Club in recent seasons has been whole body cryotherapy – a temperature controlled chamber used for treatment of muscle injuries and for faster recovery during congested periods of the football season.

Whole body cryotherapy works by exposing the players briefly to an extremely cold environment in temperature controlled chambers, inside which the temperature is maintained at levels up to -1,400C.

The Hammers have had a busy fixture list in recent months with 17 matches being played since Christmas, and some fixtures being within 48 hours of each other. During these games players can cover large distances of up 13km in each game – most of which is covered via walking and jogging however, players can perform up to 1,400 ‘forceful activities’ in a 90 minute match such as; accelerations, decelerations, turning, jumping, tackling and kicking.

This large physical exertion throughout busy periods of the fixture list poses greater injury risks and can lead to reductions in performance through fatigue, so naturally is a concern for the Medical and Sports Science department.

With that in mind, and with a lack of available information about whole body cryotherapy, West Ham are undertaking a ground-breaking study into its benefits in helping players recover and replenish after matches.

West Ham’s study is being led by sports scientist Jack Birch – the latest in a line of Swansea University graduates to join the Hammers, following fitness coach Eamon Swift and sports scientists Tommy Taylor and Matt Evans.

Birch explained that the Club is leading the way in conducting research into the use of innovative recovery methods in football.

“As we cannot control a player’s movement during a football match, our study uses a protocol that allows us to replicate the demands of a football match,” he began.

“So, for our protocol, we have used a repeated sprint test with controlled rest periods in between each sprint. After each sprint, there is a zone where players must decelerate quickly and come to a halt.”

“Previous research has shown that the majority of reduced performance and fatigue in football happens during repeated sprints and high intensity efforts so that is the key reason for this setup”.

“In the long term, we are looking to evaluate the use of whole body cryotherapy as a recovery protocol, as there is minimal literature available in this area at the moment, especially relating to its use within professional football players.”

The logical question to ask Birch is ‘How will you know whether whole body cryotherapy works?’

The answer is that he is putting volunteers from the Club’s Development Squad through a game related protocol, followed by either the extreme cold exposure of whole body cryotherapy or the more traditional method of passive recovery.

“We will measure a variety of physiological, psychological and performance based variables at different timepoints throughout a set recovery period in the players,”

Birch explained. “This will allow us to determine the possible benefits whole body cryotherapy can have on our players after a game.”

“Currently following a match, football players use a range of methods to recover but we are trying to determine the optimal recovery strategies for our players post match, and so this research allows us to understand whether we can enhance our current protocols using the latest methods.”
Birch is being aided in his study by his colleagues from West Ham’s Medical and Sports Science department and Swansea University, where he is currently studying for a Masters by Research (MRes) under the guidance of Prof. Liam Kilduff.

Naturally, Birch hopes his findings will be taken on by football clubs all over the country and beyond – helping him to secure a position at West Ham United for years to come.

“My background is similar to my fellow sports scientist here at West Ham, Tom Taylor. We both completed our sports science degrees at Swansea University and have both conducted a Masters by Research alongside our internship with West Ham.”

Like his colleague and fellow Swansea graduate, Birch hails from the South West, where he grew up catching waves off the North Devon coast near his home village of Braunton.

“I am from Devon and although I grew up playing football, the main sport in my life was actually surfing because I lived right near the coast,” he explained.

“I competed as a surfer and a footballer when I was younger, and couldn’t imagine my life without sport which made me realise I wanted to pursue a career within it, because I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.

“I chose to go to Swansea University because I knew it had an excellent Sports Science reputation and it was near the coast so I could keep surfing, which was the perfect combination for me!

“Overall my time in Swansea worked out perfectly and propelled me into an amazing position as a sports scientist at West Ham, which I am hugely enjoying. Long may it continue! COYI.”

The Swansea link

West Ham United has built up a strong link with Swansea University in recent years.

The South Wales institution has a reputation for running one of the best Sports and Exercise Science faculties in the UK – and the Hammers have taken full advantage.

The Club’s fitness coach Eamon Swift, sports scientist Tom Taylor and sports science intern Jack Birch all studied or study under the expert guidance of associate professor Dr Liam Kilduff.

A fourth, sports scientist Matt Evans, spent three seasons with West Ham before returning to his native Wales to work with the Welsh Rugby Union.

Prof. Kilduff is proud of the close association between the University and the Hammers.

“Over the last number of years we have built up a very strong collaborative partnership with West Ham,” he confirmed.

“The medical and sports science staff at the Club are very proactive in trying to ensure the players are in the best possible shape come matchday and exploring the potential benefits of cryotherapy is a great example of this.

“With a number of our graduates now working at West Ham and with our reputation for completing research that is highly relevant and impacting in elite sport, it is a partnership that will continue to grow and benefit both organisations.”