Aston Villa’s Appliance of Science
The Sunday Times
Aston Villa’s Appliance of Science
By Brian Doogan
It is Thursday afternoon and Gareth Barry is undergoing cold water therapy in a Polar Plunge tub, eliminating toxins from his body and encouraging the contracted muscles in his legs to relax. An effective recovery strategy is an essential element of modern football, especially in a week such as Barry’s in which he has played a typically physical and high-energy role in Aston Villa’s 1-0 defeat by Sunderland followed by a 1-0 loss for England in Paris. Next up were Manchester United and, psychologically as well as physically, the season becomes more gruelling as the final games approach – all the more so after another defeat, 4-0 to United at Old Trafford yesterday.
When Villa played United in the FA Cup in January, Barry covered more ground (12.04km) than any player other than United’s Michael Carrick (12.17km). Of his teammates, only Olof Mellberg, playing at full-back and tracking Cristiano Ronaldo while trying also to push forward, covered more distance at high intensity (713.4m compared to Barry’s 545.3m at speeds in excess of 21kph). Consistently, he is one of Villa’s hardest workers. At this stage of last season the fatigue and stiffness in his legs meant he had to “work a lot harder on [his] body to get [himself] right again for the next game”. But new, state-of-the-art facilities at Villa’s £13m training complex in Bodymoor Heath, which the club moved into before the start of this season, along with group and individual conditioning programmes developed by fitness coach Jim Henry and a dietary and nutritional plan which contains almost exclusively organic products, have benefited Barry and other players significantly.
Like United and Chelsea at their respective training compounds in Carrington and Cob-ham, Villa have installed HydroWorx aquatic therapy pools – the HydroWorx 2000, the Thermal Plunge and the Polar Plunge – at their new development. The technology combines the therapeutic effects of warm and cold water with innovations such as an underwater treadmill that allows players to walk or run naturally, placing less stress on the joints. The directional water jet system allows users to exercise at various intensities while an underwater video provides instant analysis of leg strains and injuries.
An 18m-long swimming pool has been built adjacent to these units. It is utilised frequently with players donning buoyancy suits, made by Aqua X and pioneered in professional sports by the National Football League in America, so that they can perform functional movements in the water after games, further aiding the recovery process.
“Pool sessions after games last for maybe 15 minutes and what we’re trying to achieve is movement without the impact,” explains Henry. “These sessions help players to recover for the training sessions out on the pitch and in preseason and over the Christmas period in particular the pool area was crucial in terms of making available to the manager [Martin O’Neill] a fit and healthy squad of players.”
The appliance of science in football is not unique to Villa or even United or Chelsea. Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, revolutionised the old football culture that prevailed within Highbury’s marble halls, designing a training ground at London Colney to administer his ideas. A swimming pool, Jacuzzi, gymnasium and pitches of the same dimensions and texture as the Gunners’ home surface were incorporated into the £12m building and surrounding area.
Increasingly, Premier League clubs are embracing a similar philosophy. Diet and nutrition, paramount in Wenger’s regime, have entered the lexicon at Bodymoor Heath where Villa’s players are required to have lunch after training. Pasta, potatoes, white meat, vegetables and fruit are staples. Science in Sport, a Blackburn company, manufactures a recovery shake that provides rapidly absorbed protein and carbohydrate and a structured dose of vitamins and minerals, which helps to rebuild and repair muscles. A growing number of clubs are clients. So advanced is the research that Villa’s staff are geared up for “the hour of opportunity” immediately following each game when the need for a substantial intake of the right minerals and vitamins is vital. “After a match, the body is screaming out for all these minerals in order to recover fully and repair tissue and muscle,” Henry emphasises. “If you’re not getting these vitamins and minerals into your body, then that process of recovery is delayed.”
The coaching sessions at Villa are always high-intensity and game-orientated, 45 minutes is usually the maximum time that players will spend on the training pitch. On the day before a game it is simply two 10-minute periods between young and old, the competitive element enhanced by a vote among the players to award the yellow jersey to the worst among them. On match day the standard of measurement is more advanced. Villa are one of eight Premier League clients of Amisco, whose analysis software provides computerised reconstruction of games and statistics on distance covered by every player, the average time between activities, the number of passes and the number of passes completed. From next season this data will be available to subscribing clubs while the game is happening.
“Jim gives every player a programme to follow – free weights, bench presses, dips, abdominal exercises, bikes,” says Barry. “The main benefit is the quicker recovery after a game and doing this [cold water and warm water therapy] gets the legs back to normal as quickly as possible. I’ve just done 10 minutes to flush the legs out and get the blood running again and on the way home they’ll feel a lot lighter than they would have felt last season. You’ve got to do the right things to be successful today in the Premier League and this is all part of it.”
Stay lean to stay mean
Aston Villa have the smallest squad in the Premier League, which makes the science behind keeping players fit and healthy especially important. Their new £13m training facility includes:
-A performance lab looking out to the gymnasium, complete with bicycle machines and free weights, where Jim Henry, who heads up the Villa fitness team, can devise programmes specific to players’ needs
-An 18m swimming pool with a deep end of 7ft; HydroWorx aquatic therapy pools including hot and cold water tubs and underwater treadmill; sauna
-A three-quarters size indoor pitch with an adjacent running track containing a device called a ‘force platform’ to measure jumping and acceleration capacity
-Refectory where players must have their lunch after training, with three chefs employed. Foods are organically grown and pastas, potatoes, white meats, vegetables and fruit are staples. Steak and chips are not on the menu
-Machines for Henry to measure body fat. He previously worked at Celtic where he found Roy Keane, with a fat level of 5.2%, the leanest player he has ever worked with. The average in the Villa squad is 8%
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