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Expediting Recovery for Elite Footballers: A Study Assessing the Potential of BFR and Cold-Water Immersion

Hytro’s research projects form the basis of their mission to advance understanding of Blood Flow Restriction within professional sport. Recently, a partnership with Oxford United FC saw a scientific study explore the effects of BFR, ice baths, and BFR and ice baths combined on the recovery of professional footballers.

Oxford United FC players celebrating

Overview of the research aims 

The research study with the EFL League One side set out to investigate how BFR can be utilised to expedite recovery in elite footballers, with a focus on how BFR can be used with water-based recovery techniques, such as ice baths. In collaboration, the study’s protocols were designed to obtain scientific data that would answer the question “Can BFR, either in isolation, or in combination with water-based therapy advance the recovery of elite athletes?” 


Dr Warren Bradley, Founder of Hytro, brought his extensive industry experience and scientific study expertise to this collaboration, drawing upon the success of the research partnership with Gloucester Rugby where an exploration of BFR and heat provided insightful findings that will be shared via a whitepaper in due course.  


Central to the hypothesis of this research was the notion that both BFR and ice baths individually provide recovery benefits to an elite athlete. Therefore, the expectation was that combining these modalities would yield amplified benefits, leading to more effective and efficient recovery sessions. Key metrics such as muscle soreness, joint pain, and perception of fatigue were monitored to gauge the effectiveness of the interventions. 


The rationale behind this hypothesis lies in the physiological responses triggered by each modality.  Ice baths induce a reduction in blood flow to the limbs during immersion due to redirecting blood to the main organs. When the body then begins to return to a normal temperature upon exiting the ice bath, the flushing of oxygenated blood back to the limbs is activated. Ice also stimulates the production of cold shock proteins that can help reduce inflammation from exercise, however, these proteins have been shown to blunt exercise adaptations so should be used sparingly. The key difference with BFR is that blood and metabolites pool in the muscle causing muscle cells to swell. This drives a stress response that triggers recovery hormone production via muscle protein synthesis. Furthermore, when the BFR stimulus is unstrapped, the pressure build up is released causing a powerful flushing of blood from the limbs removing waste and metabolites, while simultaneously driving fresh nutrients like glucose and proteins into the muscles for enhanced recovery. It makes logical sense therefore that combining these two modalities should improve recovery outcomes.  


Oxford United FC players celebrating

Credit: oufc.co.uk


Protocols for BFR, cold-water therapy, and BFR with cold-water therapy 

The implementation of BFR involved a simple integration within players’ existing recovery regimen, allowing athletes to continue with their normal activities unencumbered by additional work or time. Sessions comprised active recovery on a spin bike with or without BFR applied, with players completing three sets of five-minute intervals with two-minute rest periods in between. For the combined BFR and ice bath protocol, players underwent a four-minute submersion while applying the Hytro BFR Performance Shorts at 8 degrees Celsius before removing the straps upon exiting. The Ice only intervention involved the same protocol minus Hytro BFR.  


Dr Warren Bradley comments: “If our hypothesis is correct and BFR can augment the benefits of Cold Water Immersion (CWI), it could be a game changer for sports recovery. While many athletes praise the invigorating shock of CWI, often touting it feels hard so it must be working, the experience parallels that of BFR. If BFR does magnify CWI’s recovery benefits without taking additional time, the cost reward ratio shoots up, and we expect athletes to begin implementing BFR simultaneously with CWI to optimise their recovery regime. 


Just as interesting will be the comparison between CWI and BFR in isolation. If they demonstrate even modest similarities, athletes have options. For those averse to CWI, BFR offers an effective alternative. Or, when CWI is not viable due to environment such as when travelling, or when at home or in a hotel, using Hytro to implement BFR opens up endless recovery opportunities.” 


Athlete strapping in to Hytro BFR Performance Shorts 

Athlete response to research 

The adoption of the modality, and buy-in from the athletes themselves, is integral to the success of any research project. To encourage the Oxford United FC players to engage with the study they were educated on how to apply BFR using the Hytro wearables and what the anticipated experience and benefits were. Upon application, and after becoming attuned to the feeling of BFR, their response was overwhelmingly positive. 


The coaching team noted the significance of players’ satisfaction and perceived benefits, emphasizing the alignment between subjective experience and objective outcomes: “If you get athletes that say that feels really good, and I really enjoy that, then the next thing to consider is what’s actually happening at the cellular and molecular level. If we know players like something, it’s increasing their perception of recovery, and it’s actually increasing their muscle recovery physiologically, then we’ve nailed it.” 


Due to the usability of the Hytro BFR wearables, the Oxford United players were able to independently apply the modality, strapping in as far as they felt comfortable, with safety built into the product negating any potential risk whilst also ensuring an effective minimum occlusion. Initially, players were guided with the timings as they familiarised themselves with the shorts but were later able to take ownership of their own recovery. 


Oxford United FC player striking the ballCredit: oufc.co.uk


Oxford United also found the portability of the wearables meant they could be integrated into their recovery programme seamlessly, especially when other modalities were not available leading to the shorts being used after every away game. Particularly during travel when recovery is logistically difficult and usually a missed opportunity.  


The data gathered during the study is now being compiled and analysed to provide an overview of the findings via a white paper. This understanding will contribute to Hytro’s growing repository of research findings, further solidifying their position as leaders in scientific advancement and product development in the field of BFR. Other recent studies have been undertaken with Bristol Bears, Bristol City Women’s, Grimsby Town, and Gloucester Rugby with several more ongoing currently, Hytro remains dedicated to pushing the boundaries of innovation in sports science. 


To find out how Hytro can improve your team’s recovery, book a demo now.

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