Strategies that optimize recovery after physically intense competition are essential to enhance, or at least maintain, performance in subsequent sporting events (training and competition). Indeed, different recovery strategies such as hydrotherapy, compression garments, and exercise (9,28) are now routinely implemented by team sports athletes after competition and training. In particular, contrast water immersion-the process of alternating between cold and hot water immersions-has gained popularity especially among various football and cricket teams (2). According to Cochrane (6), contrast water immersion has become one of the most common recovery modalities among elite athletes. However, despite wide use of such recovery practices, scientific evidence highlighting their efficacy to improve, or maintain, performance or training intensity is lacking (3). Specifically, there is only limited evidence at least with well-controlled studies investigating the efficacy of cold water immersion (1,2,4,17,24), hot water immersion (16), and contrast (temperature) water immersion (7,8,29) to enhance recovery.
Recovery strategies need not be confined to one single method. Indeed, a combination of recovery strategies (e.g., cold water immersion followed by active recovery) may further promote the recovery process, as suggested by Barnett (3). However, the efficacy of such recovery combinations has also not been investigated thoroughly for any sport (3). Soccer is a team sport during which the physical demands are high, and it is common to observe a reduction in the total distance covered and a reduced amount of high-intensity running performed (18) as the match progresses and a reduction in repeated sprints after a match compared with before (19). Furthermore, in modern day soccer, it is common for players to follow an intense schedule of matches that may result in incomplete recovery and reduced match outputs (21). Thus, it is possible that effective recovery modalities, or a combination of recovery modalities, could be used to enhance recovery after physically demanding soccer matches.
The aim of the present study was to determine the effect of 3 different (2 single and 1 combined) recovery modalities on physical, physiological, and perceptual measures after soccer match play in youth soccer players. It was hypothesized that a combined recovery modality (cold water immersion and active recovery) would be more effective than single recovery modalities (contrast water immersion and passive recovery) in youth soccer players.
Experimental Approach to the Problem
A randomized crossover design was used to determine the effect of 3 post-match recovery modalities on physical performance and perceived recovery. The 3 modalities were as follows: (a) contrast water immersion (CONT), (b) a combined modality (COMB), and (c) passive recovery (PASS).
A total of 28 youth soccer players (age: 14.3 ± 0.7 years, height: 166.6 ± 5.2 cm, body mass: 54.4 ± 8.5 kg) from a Sports School Soccer Academy participated in the study. The study was ethically approved by the School's Ethics Committee. The subjects were informed of the experimental risks and they subsequently volunteered to participate after their parents, or guardians, provided informed consent. Subjects were free to withdraw from the study at any time. They regularly trained on weekdays (approximately 8-10 training sessions per week) and were all staying in a boarding school with their training program, sleep hours, and food intake controlled by the school staff.
Subjects played three 90-minute soccer matches (45 minutes per half) over 1 week. Only outfield players who played >75% of the total match time (approximately 67 minutes) per match were included in the subsequent analysis (n = from 12 to 21). The performance level of the opponents in all games was similar to the subjects' own playing level. To ensure that the intensity of the matches was representative of typical soccer intensity (5,27) and similar across the 3 matches, all players wore a heart rate (HR) monitor (Team System, Polar, Finland) during each match, so that actual physical demands could be determined.
After each match, subjects were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 post-recovery modalities: (a) contrast recovery (CONT) whereby the subjects immersed their body to the level of the mesosternale for 1 minute in cold water (12° C) using a portable plunge pool (iCool; Portacovery Australia, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia) immediately followed by a hot shower (front and rear of body at 38° C) for 2 minutes and repeated 3 times; (b) combined recovery (COMB) whereby subjects undertook cold immersion for 1 minute followed by active recovery using a cycle ergometer (60-80 rpm, 90-110 W) for 2 minutes and repeating this 3 times; and (c) passive recovery (PASS) during which the subjects performed 7 minutes of static stretching and 2 minutes with their legs raised above heart level.
Explosive Leg Power
Explosive leg power was measured using a Yardstick jump device (Swift Performance Equipment, Lismore, New South Wales, Australia). The maximal vertical jump height (VJmax) is a practical and commonly used test of leg power of soccer players (11,26) and is a reliable test (14). A two-legged countermovement jump (with arm swing) was used to determine VJmax 2 hours before each match (baseline) and 24 hours after each match. Also, VJmax was measured immediately after one match for each subject to identify the impact of a single match on the players. The best score from 3 trials was used for analysis. The intraclass correlation coefficient for determination of VJmax was 0.94 (95% confidence limits [CLs] from 0.79 to 0.98).
Physiological measures such as resting HR and body core temperature are commonly used by researchers to measure the impact of recovery modalities (7,30). Resting HR (Polar Electro, Kempele, Finland) and tympanic temperature were determined (Thermoscan pro 4000; Braun, Kronenberg, Germany) before each match (baseline) and at 3 time points after each match: (a) within 10 minutes after each match (post-match), (b) immediately after the recovery session (post-recovery session), and (c) 24 hours after match (post-24 hours).
Three different perceptual measures were determined before and after each recovery strategy. Subjects were first asked to rate their recovery using the total quality recovery (TQR) scale (15), which ranges from 6 (very, very poor recovery) to 20 (very, very good recovery). The TQR scale was administered 2 hours before each match (baseline) and at 3 time points after each match: (a) within 10 minutes after each match (post-match), (b) immediately after the recovery session (post-recovery session), and (c) 24 hours after match (post-24 hours). At the same time intervals, each player's perceived thermal sensations, using a 17-point scale ranging from 0 (unbearably cold) to 8 (unbearably hot) in 0.5-point intervals (33), were determined. Finally, each player's feelings of leg heaviness (31), on a 5-point scale (from 1 very light to 5 very heavy), were also determined.
Data are presented as mean ± SD. The change scores for jump performance and physiological and perceptual measures after each recovery modality were compared using a 1-way analysis of variance. Equal variances were examined a priori to avoid nonuniformity of error (13). Scheffe post hoc tests were used to determine differences between means. The alpha level for significance was set at p ≤ 0.05 and the statistical power was >80% (22). Data were also analyzed using a spreadsheet for analysis of straightforward controlled trials (13) to determine the percent differences in the change scores (±95% CLs). We interpreted percent changes using effect size (ES), and magnitudes of the ES were interpreted qualitatively as follows: <0.2 trivial, 0.2-0.6 small, 0.6-1.2 moderate, 1.2-2.0 large, and >2.0 very large (12).
The mean HR for the three 90-minute soccer matches was similar (179 ± 8 vs. 178 ± 8 vs. 171 ± 7 b·min−1; p > 0.05). There was a 0.6 ± 6.7% drop in VJmax immediately after a match, but there was no difference in VJmax measured after 24 hours (0.05-0.15%, p = 0.997, ES = 0.00-0.01) after each of the 3 recovery conditions (Table 1).
As shown in Tables 2 and 3, the HRs of CONT and COMB immediately after recovery were 10.3 ± 7.3% and 23.3 ± 9.9% higher than the PASS condition, respectively (p = 0.001, ES = 0.85 and ES = 1.46, respectively). Moreover, the HR after COMB was 11.8 ± 8.6% higher than CONT during the post-recovery session, although there was no substantial difference at post-24 hours among the 3 conditions (p = 0.487). Tympanic temperatures after the CONT and COMB conditions were substantially lower than in the PASS condition (−1.5 ± 1.0%, ES = 1.92; −1.1 ± 1.1%, ES = 1.68, respectively) but not at post-24 hours (p = 0.857, ES = 0.26 and ES = 0.28, respectively). Furthermore, tympanic temperature of the COMB condition was 1.5 ± 0.8% higher than the CONT condition at post-24 hours (ES = 1.76).
Although not statistically different (p = 0.129), the TQR scale immediately after the COMB recovery session was 7.4 ± 5.3% and 12.2 ± 10.7% higher than CONT (ES = 0.69) and PASS, respectively (ES = 1.05) (Figure 1). There was only a small difference between the CONT and PASS conditions in the TQR score (ES = 0.41). Furthermore, no substantial difference was found in the TQR scale among 3 conditions at post-24 hours. After CONT and COMB, thermal sensation was substantially lower than PASS after the recovery session (ES = 1.14 and ES = 2.68, respectively) but not after 24 hours. Thermal sensation after the COMB recovery session was substantially lower compared with CONT (ES = 2.60). Lighter feelings of legs were found immediately after the CONT and COMB recovery sessions (ES = 0.62 and ES = 1.11, respectively) when compared with PASS, and this trend only continued for the COMB condition at post-24 hours (ES = 0.75).
This study compared the effects of a combined recovery modality (cold water immersion and cycle exercise) and single modalities (contrast water immersion and passive recovery) on physical, physiological, and perceptual responses in soccer players. The present study showed that the combined recovery modality, after a 90-minute soccer match, did not have a positive effect on physical performance compared with single recovery modalities, but positive effects on other measures were identified.
The primary aim of a recovery session is to promote an athlete's readiness to perform (or train) again. In the present study, the subjects played three 90-minute soccer matches within 1 week each followed by a recovery modality in random order. In reality, several soccer matches can happen within such short time frame such as during a tournament or, in some countries, during the normal competitive season. In this regard, Odetoyinbo et al. (21) showed that although players were able to recover in terms of the total distance covered when playing 3 matches in 5 days, there was a clear trend for several activities relating to high-intensity activities to be reduced in game 3. The investigation of novel recovery strategies to simply maintain physical performance during soccer matches is clearly justified.
Vertical jump height is considered as one of the determining factors to differentiate different competition levels of youth soccer players (23). It was used in the present study as a simple, reliable, and muscle-specific measure of lower limb physical performance. However, we observed no substantial differences in VJmax among the 3 experimental conditions compared with the baseline (before match) measurement (Table 1). This finding agrees with previous studies that used different physical performance measures (9,18). For example, Lane and Wenger (17) examined the effects of active recovery, massage, and cold water immersion on 18-minute intermittent cycle exercises separated by 24 hours. They demonstrated that total work during an 18-minute intermittent cycling performance test was not affected in 10 healthy men after the recovery session. Similarly, Coffey et al. (7) reported no significant effect of active recovery, passive recovery, and contrast water immersion on time to exhaustion during a treadmill run performed 4 hours after the start of the first exercise bout. Collectively, this suggests that regardless of the nature of the physical measure, the short-term effect of different recovery strategies on physical performance would seem to be not performance enhancing but to maintain performance.
In this study, tympanic temperatures of CONT and COMB conditions were substantially lower than PASS after the recovery session with large ESs, and we assume that this was mainly due to effects of cold water immersion. We also observed a higher HR in the CONT and COMB conditions after the recovery session compared with PASS, with moderate to large ESs, may be because of the combined effects of cold water immersion and hot shower or active recovery. The finding was also observed by other researchers showing higher HR after CONT compared with PASS (30). A possible explanation of the findings could be due to increased metabolic rate with exposure to cold, and theoretically, the high metabolic rate might accelerate the process of recovery (25).
Although the duration of active recovery used in the present study was intermittent and short (a total of 6 minutes), compared with a typical recovery session that might last 15 minutes or more (20,32), the COMB condition showed better perceived recovery and lighter legs compared with other modalities. Furthermore, thermal sensation was much lower after the COMB recovery session when compared with CONT and PASS (Table 1). As aforementioned, low tympanic temperature and high HR were found after the COMB session, and together, these changes might lead to cooler sensations than other modalities. Conversely, Dawson et al. (8) showed that there was no difference in feelings of lower limb muscle soreness after CONT compared with PASS, stretching, and pool walking. It is also known that CONT can lower perception of fatigue compared with PASS and active recovery (7). In the present study, the COMB recovery session also elicited a moderately higher TQR immediately after the recovery session when compared with the other modalities. However, this change did not last more than 24 hours. Longer effects for “lighter legs” were reported by subjects after the COMB condition compared with the PASS condition, thus suggesting that an additional prolonged benefit may be provided by the COMB modality. Finally, in terms of recovery, there seems to be no evidence to suggest that there is an individual response (i.e., responders and non-responders) to the prescribed recovery modalities but it is clear that PASS had the least effect on TQR for most subjects (Figure 1).
We acknowledge some potential limitations of the present study. First, the study dealt only with young athletes and thus the outcomes of the study may not be applicable to older athletes. Indeed, previous research has shown that children (aged 8-10 years) recover faster than adults (aged 22 years) after high-intensity exercise (10). Second, we chose a single, practical, short-term physical measure to assess performance change. Consequently, it is not known how the different recovery strategies impact on longer duration physical performance such as intermittent running. Third, other recovery indicators such as blood lactate concentration and muscle soreness were not used in the study in an attempt to keep it simple, noninvasive, and practical. Such measures could be incorporated into future recovery studies involving young athletes. Finally, we chose not to include a “no recovery” modality as a control condition, and therefore we were unable to distinguish if any of the 3 prescribed recovery modalities were better than not prescribing recovery in young soccer players.
In summary, a combined recovery modality after a soccer match did not have a substantial effect on physical performance when compared with single recovery modalities (contrast water immersion and passive recovery). However, the positive effects on perceived recovery after the combined modality suggest that this approach could be beneficial after intense soccer match play in young athletes.
Recovery sessions should be viewed as an integral part of the training program and should be conducted based on several criteria such as the nature of the sport, fatigue levels of athletes, body composition, and time required to recover. It may be even beneficial to individually customize recovery modalities based on the needs and preferences of athletes and also the demands of training and competition during specific phases of the year. This study shows that there was no substantial benefit of implementing a combined recovery modality on physical performance compared with commonly used standard single recovery modalities (contrast water immersion or passive recovery), although it did result in better perceived recovery compared with a single recovery modality. Given the importance of improving how athletes feel, the combined recovery modality could be used after intense soccer match play to aid perceived recovery. More specific applied research is needed to establish and refine recovery strategies for young athletes after intense activity.
There was no funding support for the study, and the authors have no conflicts of interest directly relevant to the content of the study.
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