The incredible steps clubs are taking to stop injuries caused by travel & sleep
In 2015, Tottenham Hotspur announced they had been granted planning permission to build a player accommodation lodge adjacent to their training centre in Enfield.
The idea behind the lodge, the club’s website explained, was ‘to create a controlled, consistent and familiar environment for players to optimise rest, rehabilitation, recovery and diet’.
It will be particularly useful after long away trips, especially for European games, when players can now get into bed within minutes of reaching the training centre rather than face a further journey back to their homes.
Completed in May, in time for Brazil to use it as their pre-World Cup base, the lodge is similar to facilities previously built by Manchester City and Real Madrid, and is another strong endorsement of the value top-level football clubs place in marginal gains.
Not everybody is convinced by the concept in football – “how much help do top international players really need?” former Tottenham manager David Pleat asked in response to the extra coaches involved in England’s World Cup campaign – but Spurs’ willingness to invest £30million into the lodge proves clubs are willing to spend big money to find any sort of advantage they can.
The impact of travel
Research has shown sleep and travel directly impacts on player recovery and performance, and Spurs are certainly not alone in looking to mitigate against the negative effects.
“Travel has a pretty significant effect on lots of things that are vital for athletes,” Kitman Labs CEO Stephen Smith says.
“Air travel is well known to cause dehydration, change oxygen levels, and it affects circulation, removal of waste and toxins. The disturbance from time zone changes and circadian rhythm, and the changes in sleep have a knock-on effect in terms of coordination, reaction times, things like that.
“For some teams, travel is what it is, and they just keep things as normal as they possibly can. But there are other teams who go to the absolute nth degree. We know some teams, for example, that have infrared lamps set up for when the players wake up the next morning (in a different country) to acclimatise players to the time zone they’re now in.
“What Tottenham Hotspur are doing is pretty phenomenal. When players come back from games, they usually get to the training centre, get in their car and then commute further home and deal with whatever’s going on there.
“What Spurs want to do is get back to the training centre, let the boys get straight into bed and let the recovery begin from that second.
Bem-vindo Brasil 🇧🇷
— Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) May 28, 2018
“Then there are teams who use custom fit compression socks, full-length compression socks. Man Utd have quite effectively been using them over a number of years.
“We know there are a number of clubs who utilise pneumatic compression and icing on the journey back from games. These devices are charged up so players can pop them straight on. Recovery starts the second they get on the team bus, it doesn’t have to wait until that night or the next day.”
Solving a problem
The problem for football clubs is that, while they are able to collect lots of data about how players are affected by travel and poor quality sleep, making use of that information is more difficult.
Which is where Kitman Labs comes in. Launched in 2012, their award-winning Athlete Optimization System, described as the first in the world, provides clubs with a way of not only storing their data in one place but actually designing individualised treatment and recovery plans for every one of their players.
It is currently being used by over 150 clubs worldwide across several different sports, with football clients including Chelsea, Celtic, Rangers, Bournemouth, Bayer Leverkusen, Augsburg, several Championship clubs and around a third of MLS teams.
Smith, who founded Kitman Labs and previously worked as a rehabilitation and conditioning coach for Leinster Rugby, says the product is completely unique in the market.
“Over the last year we’ve had more than a doubling in terms of the number of clients we have,” he says.
“It’s been phenomenal for us as an organisation to see that market acceptance and for people to realise there’s a problem to be solved and that we do something different to anybody else to fix that.
“In the early days of the data revolution in sport, everybody wanted to get these tools to store their data. They wanted all their data in one place, but just having the data in one place isn’t the key to success. Actually understanding what the information means is the key to success.
“What we generally find is that we’re educating people about how to make that second step.
“Everyone has done a great job of collecting information, and what we’re helping people to understand is how do you stop being a slave to data collection, how do you leverage that and make great decisions?
How it works
“The time of optimal recovery is different for everyone. It depends on the strategy you’re implementing, it depends on the workload that the athlete has gone through during the game, it depends on the training schedule the week prior to it, it depends on the fitness levels. There are just a multitude of factors.
“This is why it’s so incredibly challenging for teams and why our technology is so powerful because we can scan those differences and have a record of what the athlete has done, what he’s come through.
“We can take all the game information, we can track key physiological metrics about how the athlete is recovering, and then we can help the staff of the teams decide how they’re going to individualise their treatment and their recovery for those athletes.
“Some of it can be tracked psychologically where the athletes give information about how they’re feeling and how they’re recovering. Some of it comes through taking biomechanical information so we see if there are any subtle degenerative changes that are occurring from overload.
“Some of it comes from physiological response so we track heart rate response and things like that.
The impact of travel on sleep has a knock on impact on injury risk. How will teams cope during this years World Cup in the vastness that is Russia?#gameofinsights #sleep #worldcup2018 pic.twitter.com/p8MKZFSlHK
— Kitman Labs (@KitmanLabs) June 11, 2018
“There are a multitude of different methods that teams are already using, but generally that’s being looked at in an isolated way. They’ll look at the heart rate data by itself, they’ll look at the biomechnical data by itself, they’ll look at the sleep data etc.
“What we give them the ability to do is look at the combination of all of that to understand how an individual athlete is responding and how does their care need to adjust because someone is not recovering as quickly as they might expect.”
Some people may have raised an eyebrow at Spurs spending £30million just to keep their players on site after away games, but as far as Smith is concerned, it would be remiss of clubs not to take such steps.
“The difference between finishing a couple of places higher in the Premier League is worth a phenomenal amount of money so it makes total sense that teams are going to this level to improve their business,” he says.
“Tools like ours are sports science tools, but really they’re business aids. This is something that helps businesses become more profitable. So it becomes everyone’s responsibility.”
By Mark Holmes