Category Archives: Caroline Heaney

Sport and Fitness Student Induction: Student Hub Live

On Tuesday 26th September 2017, as part of our induction for sport and fitness students studying at the Open University, we held a live induction event through our Student Hub Live platform. If you missed the session you can watch the full video here on the link below or you can watch the individual videos of each session below.

Session 1: Sport and Fitness Qualification Overview (Caroline Heaney and Ben Oakley)

Session 2: Sport and Fitness Blog and Social Media (Helen Owton and Karen Howells)

Session 3: The Role of the Tutor (Helen Owton and Ola Fadoju)

Session 4: E117 App Demonstration (Ben Langdown and Caroline Heaney)

Session 5: The Student Journey (Jess Pinchbeck and Caroline Heaney)

Exercise: The miracle treatment for mental health?

By Caroline Heaney

Recent campaigns such as Heads Together have helped to raise awareness of mental health difficulties. Mental health issues affect everyone – it is estimated that 1 in 4 people experience a mental health problem each year, which means that most of us will be affected by a mental health condition at some point in our lives, either directly or through someone close to us. It is vital that once someone has taken the difficult step to disclose mental health difficulties that they can access the right treatment and support, however, NHS funding for mental health services has been reduced whilst demand has increased. It is estimated that by 2030 there will be 2 million adults with a mental health problem, and an NHS funding shortfall of £44-54 billion over the next decade. There are various treatment options available including therapies and medication, but medication is reported to be the most commonly used treatment for mental health problems. This comes at a huge cost to the NHS who reportedly spend £285 million per year on antidepressant medications. If only there was a low-cost treatment with few side effects and many additional health benefits. Well there is – exercise!

Image courtesy of nenetus at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Exercise has long been recognised as an effective intervention in both the prevention and treatment of mental health conditions. For example, in their meta-analysis of the literature exploring exercise in the treatment of depression Josefsson, Lindwall and Archer (2014), found exercise to be an effective treatment in those with mild and moderate depression, with the potential to be effective with those with more severe depression. Similarly, exercise has also been found to be an effective tool in the prevention of depression (Mammen and Faulkner, 2013). The simple logic behind the link between exercise and mental health is that exercise can make us feel better. This means that exercise can benefit your mental health whether or not you have a diagnosed mental health problem. As well as combating diagnosed mental health conditions such as depression, exercise can enhance mood and reduce stress levels, thus allowing us to tackle daily challenges in a more positive, optimistic and constructive way.

BBC 1’s Mind Over Marathon showed the power of exercise as it charted the experience of a group of people with mental health conditions as they prepared to run the 2017 London Marathon. The people in this programme were not unique in their experience of finding exercise therapeutic in their fight against mental health conditions. Up and down the country there are many people who are advocates for the beneficial role of exercise in preventing and treating mental health conditions. A few years ago I was lucky enough to meet a group of inspiring people in Essex who were referred to a Healthy Lifestyle Programme which involved prescribing exercise as part of a programme to tackle mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. A clear message from these participants was that exercise was a powerful tool in helping them to combat mental health challenges. They described exercise as a far more positive treatment than medication.

Potentially, exercise can be used to treat mental health problems in place of or in addition to medication and other therapies, but in order for patients to benefit, medical professionals need to be confident in its role as a treatment and have access to suitable programmes to which they can refer their patients. Data from the Mental Health Foundation suggests that whilst more than half of the GPs they surveyed recognised exercise as an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression, only 21% would actually refer a patient to a supervised exercise programme. This could however be due, in part, to a lack of access as 40% of the GPs surveyed said that they didn’t have access to an exercise referral scheme.

There lots of evidence to show that exercise can have a positive impact on mental health, but why is this the case? What is it about engaging in physical activity that leads to enhanced mental health? There is no one theory or hypothesis that has been universally accepted to explain the link between exercise and mental health. Instead, several different hypotheses have been proposed. These can be split into two categories: physical or psychological explanations (see table 1). It may be that a combination of factors is causes improvements in mental health, rather than one factor alone. Additionally, because people differ greatly, explanations for improvements in mental health may vary according to the individual concerned.

Table 1: Examples of physical and psychological explanations for the relationship between exercise and improved mental health (adapted from Weinberg and Gould, 2015)

Physiological Explanations Psychological Explanations
  • Increases in cerebral blood flow
  • Changes in brain neurotransmitters (e.g., norepinephrine, endorphins, serotonin)
  • Increases in maximal oxygen consumption and delivery of oxygen to cerebral tissues
  • Reductions in muscle tension
  • Structural changes in the brain
  • Enhanced feeling of control
  • Feeling of competency and self-efficacy
  • Positive social interactions
  • Improved self-concept and self-esteem
  • Opportunities for fun and enjoyment

 

Conclusion

It would appear that exercise can be a highly effective tool in the prevention and treatment of mental health conditions. Exercise is a comparatively low cost treatment that can be used on its own or as an adjunct therapy and has virtually no side effects. In addition, it can tackle many other health conditions such as hypertension and heart disease. Surely prescribing exercise to treat mental health is a no brainer!

To find out more on this topic try our free course Exercise and Mental Health.

 

Life after the Olympics: retirement

By Caroline Heaney

The close of the 2016 Olympics bought with them the prospect of the retirement of some of the leading names in sport. Usain Bolt, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Michael Phelps, for example, will all be notable absences from the 2020 Olympics, but how will these athletes cope with life after elite sport?

After the thrill of the Olympics many athletes experience a post-Olympic come down and some can even experience depression. It seems logical that after the four-year build-up and the excitement of the event, many athletes are left asking themselves the question of ‘what next’ once the games are over. When an athlete feels that they’ve achieved all that they can achieve in the Olympic environment the answer to that question might be retirement.

Retirement from sport is not an easy transition for any athlete to make. Elite athletes who have dedicated their whole life to their sport and tend to have a strong athletic identity, where being an athlete is a large part of their perception of their identity. To have that part of their identity taken away can be traumatic and lead to an identity crisis. Several high profile athletes have admitted to struggling with retirement and career termination (retirement) is considered to be a significant potential cause of depression and anxiety amongst athletes. Of course, retirement from sport doesn’t have to be a negative experience – some may view it as a ‘rebirth’ rather than a ‘death’. How an athlete copes with retirement can depend on a multitude of factors such as their general resilience, whether they have made plans for life after sport, whether they have fulfilled their potential, and whether their retirement is planned or forced (e.g. a career ending injury).

Let’s examine the case of three Olympic medallists who are reaching the end of their careers and are contemplating retirement in the not too distant future – Usain Bolt, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Michael Phelps.

Bolt: The man with a plan

After he achieved the unprecedented ‘triple triple’ (Olympic gold medals in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m in 2008, 2012 and 2016) Usain Bolt announced that Rio would be his last Olympics. This comes as no surprise as Bolt had identified this as his plan long before the Rio Olympics. Bolt is not retiring just yet and is planning to compete in the World Athletics Championships in London next year. This ‘phased retirement’ may help Bolt with the transition into retirement that many athletes struggle with. The difference between Bolt and some athletes who find retirement difficult is the fact that Usain has achieved everything he possibly could in his sport and is exiting on his terms (a ‘planned’ retirement) – for Usain there will be no unfinished business. This will give Usain a strong sense of control over his retirement. Despite this, retirement must still be a difficult decision for Bolt, particularly when he is viewed by many as the saviour of athletics – a pressure indeed and his absence from the sport will no doubt be felt when his retirement does come.

Ennis-Hill: A decision to be made

Whilst Bolt has a clear plan for his future Jessica Ennis-Hill, after achieving a heptathlon silver medal in Rio, following her Gold in 2012, is taking some time to contemplate her future. After her event she stated “It’s going to be a tough decision, I’m going to go away and think about it… it’s a big decision.” Like Bolt, Ennis-Hill has given a clear message that she will not be at the 2020 Olympics, but has yet to decide whether to draw a line under her career now or at a later date. A home World Championships for the reigning World Champion might be a temptation for a final swansong, but will it live up to a home Olympics? Preparing for a heptathlon competition is no easy task and having twice before won the World Championships Ennis-Hill may decide that the incentive just isn’t great enough. Maybe what Jess needs is a new challenge, such as joining the exclusive 7000-point heptathlon club. Taking her time to reflect on her future and not rushing into a decision in flurry of post-Olympics emotion is a sensible approach as effective retirement decision making can be a complex process. Whatever decision she makes Ennis-Hill has been a fantastic ambassador for her sport and as one of the few women in sport to become a household name her role as female athletic role model should not be underestimated.

Phelps: The comeback king

Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history (28 Olympic medals over 5 games), is an example of an athlete who retired, but then came back to swimming. Returning to sport after retirement is often associated with a compulsion to compete and an inability to cope with the sense of loss that occurs following retirement. This appears to have been the case with Phelps who stated that he experienced a tremendous low point after his retirement. Phelps has made no secret of the mental health challenges he has experienced in his life and in sharing these he has helped to overcome the stigma of athletes experiencing mental health conditions such as depression. Having learnt important lessons from his first retirement Phelps felt that he had ‘unfinished business’. His response to his imminent second retirement has been very positive:

‘I feel fulfilled. It was what I wanted. I was able to dedicate myself to this last comeback and that was it. One last hurrah. Looking back, it happened exactly how I wanted it to and exactly how it should have. Now I can hang up my suit and be happy with retiring. During the medal ceremonies, I was more emotional than I ever was before. I think that’s just because I was truly happy with where I am and how everything went.”

Bolt, Ennis-Hill and Phelps have all left their mark in Olympic history and as they move towards new chapters in their lives they face new challenges which they will hopefully take on with the mental strength of an Olympian.

Reflections on the Student Hub Live Olympics Special

On Friday 19th Aust 2016 members of the OU sport and fitness team (Simon Rea, Karen Howells and Caroline Heaney) took part in the Student Hub Live Olympics Special. This was our first experience of a live streamed event, but we all thoroughly enjoyed it. We were joined by Kath Woodward and Elizabeth Silva and the session was expertly hosted by Karen Foley.

imageOn our arrival we were delighted to see that the green room was well stocked with tasty treats, possibly as an incentive to take a green room selfie!

We then participated in a short Facebook live video talking about what we would cover in the session. This helped us to overcome some of our nerves about the main event and we were impressed how many students watched the video. This filled us with excitement about what was to come and the amount of student interaction that was possible.

imageThe session kicked off at noon and Simon Rea was up first discussing the history of the Olympics. He also shared his experience of racing 1980 Olympic 100m champion Alan Wells!

 

image

 

Simon was followed by Elizabeth Silva, Professor of Sociology, who examined some of the economical and political aspects of the Olympics, and gave some interesting insight.

 

 

 

 

image

Karen Howells was up next discussing the coach-athlete relationship and the role of sport psychology. This session highlighted the importance of the team behind the athlete.

image

 

 

 

Karen was followed by Caroline Heaney who discussed the links between mental health and sport and exercise. As well as looking at exercise as a treatment for mental health conditions, the session looked at the incidence of depression in elite athletes.

 

imageThe session concluded with an interesting discussion about gender and the Olympics with Kath Woodward who challenged the audience to consider whether traditional views of gender are too narrow.

The Student Hub Live Olympics Special provided us with a great opportunity to interact with students and share our knowledge on sports related topics. We hope that those who engaged with the session found it interesting.

If you missed the session it will be available through the catch-up link on this page, or you can watch the video below.

If you are interested in studying sport and fitness at the OU please click here to find out more.

Video: What sporting future? Risks and rewards

So far in the 2016 Rio Olympics we have seen several world records (e.g. Ayana in the 10,000m, Peaty in 100m breaststroke, Wlodarczyk in the hammer,  Qingquan in weightlifting). In this video Michael Johnson, who yesterday lost his 400m world record to Wayde van Niekerk reflects on the future of sport in an age when technology is advancing rapidly.

Note: This video is also available in the OpenLearn Chasing Perfection video collection

Penalty Pressure Potential at Euro 2016

By Caroline Heaney

As Euro 2016 moves into the knockout stages football fans will be preparing themselves for the prospect of a penalty shoot-out or two. Penalty shoot-outs are rarely missing from a major tournament and are a source of great stress and excitement.

England fans have a love-hate relationship with the penalty shoot-out. The excitement of a penalty shoot-out is unquestionable, but England teams are not renowned for their success in penalty shoot-outs. The men’s team have had several exits from major tournaments at the hands of a penalty shoot-out (e.g. 2006 World Cup, Euro 2012) and the women’s team exited the 2011 World Cup after losing to France on penalties in the quarter final stages. So what is it about the penalty shoot-out that makes it so intense?

The penalty shoot-out in a major tournament is probably one the most highly pressured situations in football; the stakes are high and the margins for error are small. Additionally, the personal accountability of individual players is probably higher than in any other situation in football, where normally responsibility is collectively shared. No-one wants to be the player responsible for their team exiting a major tournament, and history shows that unsuccessful penalty takers are often ‘scapegoated’ and ostracised by their national media. Interestingly it appears to be the penalty takers rather than the goal-keepers who tend to fall victim to this negative media attention, perhaps due to the expectations of a penalty shoot-out: penalty takers are expected to score and goal-keepers are expected not to stop them. Obviously when a goal-keeper makes a winning save they become a hero in the eyes of the media, but rarely are they subjected to the same media condemnation as a player who misses a penalty when they fail to save a penalty.

As a result of this teams often focus a significant amount of effort on preparing for the possibility of a penalty shoot-out. The Welsh team, for example, have reportedly been practicing penalties in preparation for the knockout stages of Euro 2016 . Psychology is certainly a significant factor in the penalty shoot-out. As a sport psychologist I like to watch a player prepare to take a penalty and predict whether they will be successful – there are certain psychological cues that are indicative of the outcome. Researchers have investigated these and have identified various factors that can influence the success of the penalty shoot-out. Some of these are explored in our penalty shoot-out game below.

Penalty Shootout Game

Penalty Shootout Game

Click here to play our penalty shoot-out game

As with most tasks, confidence is key. A player who is confident and believes that they will score is more likely to do so. There is no room for doubt in a penalty shoot-out. Confidence can be seen through visual cues such as eye contact. A player who lacks confidence may avoid making eye contact with the goal keeper. Good goal keepers recognise these signals and will draw strength from an opponent who won’t make eye contact. Additionally, a successful penalty taker will normally take their time and not rush. Rushing can be seen as a sign of panic, whereas someone who waits is giving themselves time to compose themselves before executing the skill, perhaps utilising psychological techniques like imagery and positive self-talk before taking the penalty kick. A player may use imagery to rehearse taking a successful penalty in their head before taking it and may use positive self-talk to enhance their confidence and focus.

Experience is obviously an important factor for penalty takers. Players who have previously successfully taken penalties and won penalty shoot-outs are more likely to be confident in their ability to take a successful penalty. The reverse of that, however, is that those who have had bad experiences are less likely to be confident, which goes some way to explaining the serial penalty shoot-out defeats seen in teams such as the England and Holland men’s teams – the culture of expecting to lose a penalty shoot-out perpetuates. Research has revealed that success rates in penalty shoot-outs are considerably higher for teams who have won their last two penalty shoot-outs compared to those who have lost their last two shoot-outs, even if the team membership is changed. Interestingly ‘higher status’ players, whilst likely having more experience to draw on, are sometimes less successful in penalty shoot-out situations; perhaps because the pressure of expectation is far greater for them than for players of lower status. Try our penalty shoot-out game to see these factors in action.

This shows that the successful penalty taker is one who is highly confident and copes well with pressure. Next time you watch a penalty shoot-out, watch the players prepare and see if you can predict whether or not they will be successful.

For more coverage of Euro 2016 visit the OpenLearn Euro 2016 Hub

Inspiring Women @ FELS: Lessons from sport psychology

Below is a copy of the PowerPoint slides used by Caroline Heaney in the ‘Lessons from sport psychology: How to be confident and achieve your goals!’ segment of the Inspiring Women @ FELS session held on Tuesday 24th November 2015.

CH Inspiring Women in FELS Session

The performance profiling and confidence building activity sheet below may also be useful to those who attended the session.

Confidence Building Tips

I hope you enjoyed the session. Please free to leave any feedback comments below.

 

Snooze you don’t lose: Is sleep the secret ingredient of World Cup success?

By Caroline Heaney

With the Rugby World Cup final taking place this weekend both teams will be looking for the small gains in their preparation that could mean the difference between success and failure. One such area that has received a lot of attention in recent times is sleep. As I’ve discussed in a previous post, recovery is an important part of competing in a major tournament. Both New Zealand and Australia have played six matches on their way to the final, which could take its toll, therefore, how they recover from that demand is vitally important to their chances of success. Sleep is perhaps the ultimate recovery strategy, but why is it considered to be so important?

Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

What is sleep?

Sleep can be defined as a complex state with both physiological and behavioural components where the individual is temporarily disengaged and unresponsive to the environment (Halson, 2013). There are two key stages of sleep – rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM. It is NREM sleep that contains deep sleep (known as slow wave sleep). This is the period that is thought to be particularly important for recovery in sports people.

Why is sleep important for sports people?

Outside of sport a lack of sleep is often considered to have detrimental effect on performance. For example, we are advised not to drive or operate heavy machinery whilst tired. It therefore seems logical to assume that tired athletes are likely to underperform. Anecdotally there are many accounts of sleep, or a lack of it, having a detrimental effect on sporting performance. Whilst the purpose of sleep is not fully understood it is generally accepted that it is required to facilitate recovery and preparation for functioning (both physiological and cognitive) in the next waking period (Fullagar et al., 2015; Halson, 2014). Therefore the sleep an athlete has the night before and in the days leading up to a competition (e.g. Rugby World Cup final) is important. The challenge here is that athletes often report sleeping difficulties the night before an important competition due to pre-competition anxiety or excitement (Juliff, Halson, & Peiffer, 2015). Additionally, the sleep patterns and sleep quality of travelling athletes can be negatively affected by factors such as jet lag, change of routine and unfamiliar surroundings. This is particularly important when the 2015 Rugby World Cup final is to be played by two southern hemisphere teams in a northern hemisphere location. That said, both teams have been in the UK for a while and will have likely established sleeping routines. It would be very surprising if this is not an aspect of recovery that both teams have put strategies in place to address.

What does the research say?

Previous research has suggested that sports performers may be vulnerable to sleep disturbances due to a variety of reasons including early training sessions, poor sleep habits, caffeine use, travel, and pre-competition anxiety. Whilst sleep is a broadly researched area, the body of research examining sleep amongst sports performers is relatively small (Halson, 2014). Research that has examined the relationship between sleep and sports performance has explored the effects of sleep deprivation, partial sleep deprivation/sleep restriction, sleep extension and napping. In their review of the literature Fullagar et al. (2015) concluded that there is evidence to suggest that sleep deprivation has a significant impact on sports performance.

Circadian cycle

The time of day that the World Cup final is held could also have an impact on performance. The World Cup final will be played at 4pm, but Australian fans reportedly requested a change to 8pm. It seems that everyone has an optimal time of day that they perform at their best, dictated by their body clock or circadian cycle. The video below gives a simple explanation of this, splitting athletes into ‘larks’ and ‘owls’. It would appear that a 4pm kick-off favours intermediate types (peak performance around 16:00) rather than pure ‘larks’ (peak performance before 12:00) or ‘owls’ (peak performance around 20:00), whilst the change favoured by Australian fans would favour ‘owls’. However, this simple analogy does not take into account the experience, preparation and complex sleep patterns of the two travelling teams.

Conclusion

Who will win the Rugby World Cup remains to be seen, but it is possible that sleep could be a contributing factor. Sleep appears to be an important part of the athlete’s recovery and preparation and can potentially influence performance, so in order to get a top quality final tomorrow let’s hope that both Australia and New Zealand get a good night’s sleep tonight!

References

Fullagar, H. H. K., Skorski, S., Duffield, R., Hammes, D., Coutts, A. J., & Meyer, T. (2015). Sleep and athletic performance: the effects of sleep loss on exercise performance, and physiological and cognitve responses to exercise. Sports Medicine, 45, 161-186.

Halson, S. (2013). Sleep and the elite athlete. Sports Science Exchange, 26(113), 1-4.

Halson, S. (2014). Sleep in elite athletes and nutritional interventions to enhance sleep. Sports Medicine, 44, S13-S23.

Juliff, L. E., Halson, S. L., & Peiffer, J. J. (2015). Understanding sleep disturbance in athletes prior to important competitions. Journal of Science & Medicine in Sport, 18(1), 13-18.

Raising the profile of The OU Sport & Fitness Team – Please RT!

By Caroline Heaney & Helen Owton


At the FELS Learning and Teaching conference in October 2015, Caroline Heaney and Helen Owton gave a presentation on “Using social media to raise your profile”. The aim of the presentation was to share the Open University (OU) Sport and Fitness Team’s experience of using social media and consider whether this had worked in raising the profile of the qualification area. This article provides a summary of the key metrics discussed in the presentation.

IDidntKnowSport and fitness qualifications have been available at the OU since 2008, yet anecdotally knowledge of the availability of these did not appear widespread. Using social media was identified as a low-budget strategy for raising the profile of the qualification. The social media strategy adopted by the Sport and Fitness team primarily involves the use of three media – Twitter, team blog and The Conversation.

Twitter

TwitterThe OU Sport and Fitness Twitter account was launched in October 2012 and has created 1,316 tweets collecting 640 followers to date which consists of students, Associate Lecturers, Open University accounts and others. This is mainly used to share relevant articles, engage with students and direct traffic to the blog. The @OU_Sport Twitter account currently has a ‘Klout score’ (measure of online impact) of 45, which is slightly above the average of 40.

Blog

BlogThe OU Sport and Fitness team blog was started in February 2014. It was initially only active during major sporting events (e.g. Winter Olympics/Paralympics, Commonwealth Games), but has been active all year round since May 2015. To date, there have been 85 posts (mean: 5 posts/month) written by all 8 members of the academic team team. Engagement from the entire team is key to the success of the blog. The articles posted on the blog are also sometimes posted in other locations (e.g. OpenLearn, The Conversation), and are publicised through Twitter and the Faculty Facebook page.  Data collected since May 2015 shows that the blog receives an average of 1,173 page views per month (range 707-1,819), with a high percentage of new visitors (mean = 85%). The blog is predominantly viewed by UK audiences, but does have a worldwide audience.

The Conversation

ConversationThe Conversation is “a collaboration between editors and academics to provide informed news analysis and commentary that’s free to read and republish”. It therefore provides a platform for academics to disseminate academic knowledge in an accessible format. The Sport and Fitness team have published 21 articles in The Conversation to date. The Conversation has a wide reach and at 17th September 2015 articles written by the team had received 63,354 views, which equates to a mean of 3,017 views per article (20 articles) and a range of 640-17,239 views per article.

Is it worth it?

The team believe that engaging with social media has been highly effective in raising the external profile of Sport and Fitness at The Open University. Additionally, the team have derived further benefits through engaging with social medial such as being able to communicate with students, developing a sport and fitness community, and disseminating research findings more widely.

Thank you to everyone who has followed, supported and re-tweeted us.

 

Twitter https://twitter.com/OU_Sport

Blog http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/OU-Sport

The Conversation https://theconversation.com/uk

 

 

Recovery at the Rugby World Cup

By Caroline Heaney

Image courtesy of nenetus at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of nenetus at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Recovery has reportedly become a ‘hot topic’ at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Competing in a major tournament such as the Rugby World Cup can take its toll on the body. Rugby is a physically demanding sport that fatigues the body, so it’s important for players to be able to recover effectively and bounce back ready for the next match. Teams that reach the final of the Rugby World Cup will have played seven matches and that can be tough for the body to cope with, even amongst elite athletes. Although both teams in the final will have played the same number of games, they may not have had the same experience. One team, for example, will have an extra day of rest since the two semi-finals are played on consecutive days. Additionally, one team may have a more gruelling semi-final than the other which could give their opposition an advantage. How well they recover from that gruelling match could make all the difference to the result. A lack of adequate recovery was reported to be an influencing factor in Japan’s defeat at the hands of Scotland after such a spectacular opening match against South Africa. Consequently sports performers often employ recovery strategies to speed up and maximise their recovery between matches. In this article we will review three commonly used strategies: cryotherapy, compression clothing and massage.

Cryotherapy

Cryotherapy can be defined as the lowering of tissue temperature in order to achieve a therapeutic objective (in this case to enhance recovery). There are various modes of cryotherapy, but ice baths were traditionally the most common mode used by athletes, however increasingly whole body cryotherapy is being used. Whole body cryotherapy (WBC) is where athletes are exposed to very low temperature rooms or chambers. Cryotherapy is openly used by elite rugby players. The Wales team, for example, were using cryotherapy in preparation for last World Cup in 2011 and reportedly stepped into a cryotherapy chamber soon after their victory over England on 26th September.

Cryotherapy is thought to reduce some of the negative symptoms associated with intensive exercise such as muscle soreness and inflammation, and increase waste transportation, but what evidence is there to support this? It would appear not a huge amount. A recent review found only limited evidence to support WBC as a recovery tool and concluded that it may make no difference to muscle soreness or even make the pain worse. Interestingly, when questioned on this a spokesperson from Welsh Rugby stated that despite the lack of evidence they continue to use it because they “think it works”. This indicates the importance of belief in a treatment and the potential for the placebo effect to influence recovery when using cryotherapy.

Compression clothing

Compression garments are the items of tight clothing worn by athletes that have highly elastic properties which provide compression. These garments have become commonplace in rugby, but what is the theory behind them and why are they thought to aid recovery? It is logical to assume that compression is beneficial to recovery due to some of its other uses e.g. in the treatment of sports injuries or the use of flight socks to avoid developing deep vein thrombosis. Compression garments are suggested to enhance recovery by reducing the swelling and inflammation that occurs in response to intensive exercise. The theory is that the compression creates an external pressure gradient thus minimising the space available for swelling, but what does the research evidence show?

In their meta-analysis of 12 compression garment studies Hill et al. (2014) concluded that there is evidence that compression garments are moderately effective in enhancing recovery from exercise induced muscle damage. So it would seem that there is some value to using compression garments to aid recovery.

Massage

Massage is commonly used by rugby players to enhance their recovery between matches, for example, the England rugby team use massage as an integral part of their recovery and match preparation. Whilst massage is a well established recovery strategy, there is a surprising lack of scientific evidence to support its use. Brummitt (2008) in his review of the literature concluded that the research has failed to show that massage has a significant impact on delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) or other measures of recovery. More recently, after reviewing the literature, Nelson (2013) concluded that massage has a promising role to play in reducing DOMS, but urged caution due to the variability in study methodology. This identifies one of the key issues that has stunted massage research – individual differences. Each massage therapist develops their own individual massage style, making comparisons between therapists problematic. Additionally, factors such as the depth of pressure applied, muscle groups involved, ambient temperature, and time of day may all affect the impact of a massage. Consequently, it appears that what is lacking from the body of research evidence is guidance on what techniques, timings and dosages are optimal for recovery.

Conclusion

It is likely that players in the Rugby World Cup will be engaging in a wide variety of recovery strategies during the tournament, including, but not limited those outlined in this article. While the scientific evidence to support these strategies is still relatively limited, they are widely adopted by players and players appear to believe that they are effective. This is perhaps the most important factor of all – if an athlete believes that a strategy will help them recover, they will feel more confident going into their next game and that can only be a good thing.

 

The science behind recovery strategies in sport will be covered in a new OU Sport and Fitness level 3 module coming soon.

For more Rugby World Cup related articles, visit the OpenLearn Rugby World Cup Hub.