Recovery, Ice baths and the ‘ICE MAN’

You might be thinking or saying hell no to ice baths and who the fuck is the Ice Man. In this article, we take a look at recovery for Rugby players. Ice baths have become more and more popular in the professional rugby environment. It can be cost effective and easy to set up if you have a bag of ice, water, and a large barrel or bath.

My experience with Ice Baths…

I experienced Ice baths for the first time when I was at Lincoln University and studying under professor Mike Hamlin. Back in 2003 it was not as widely used as it is now but he was working on the research and needed a test subject to help. I knew nothing about them but thought it might be fun. 

We even had David Desoma do a segment for the One news which was awesome. (It was bloody cold and tough work jumping into a wheelie bin full of water and ice for the camera but my mate Ali and I had to make it look easy and be tough for the camera.

What happened really?

Immediate shock, breathlessness, the feeling of aching joints, pins, and needles and throbbing all come to mind with the initial contact with an ice bath. When I played for Bay of Plenty, I will always remember when ‘Lats’ or Tanerau Latimer jumped in a 6 bag ice bath up to his neck. It was after our game with Counties and even though I had had my fair share of ice baths I thought fuck that! Lats didn’t even blink an eyelid he had used them throughout his career and had obviously got results from them. 

Throughout my career, I have found it to be one of the best tools to recover from soft tissue injuries even though I have never really enjoyed them. I always noticed how the next day I could actually move and get out of bed.  When I forget to have an ice bath after a tough game I hobble out of bed like some 90-year-old men.

What does it mean to recover?

The definition is to return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.

To recuperate, get better, get well, convalesce, regain one’s strength, regain one’s health, get stronger, get back on one’s feet, feel oneself again, get back to normal, return to health.

Why do we need to recover from Rugby?

  • We want to recover so we can train again much quicker.
  • Remove inflammation and lactic acid from the body.
  • Play again when there is a short turn around for a game
  • Play to the best of our ability
  • Continue to perform on the field

What is an Ice Bath in Rugby?

In Rugby, an ice bath, or sometimes cold-water immersion or cold therapy, is a training regimen usually following a period of intense game or training.  We sit or stand in a container where a substantial part of a human body is immersed in ice or ice-water for a limited duration. 

While it is becoming increasingly popular and accepted among athletes in a variety of sports it is still not fully understood how it helps and the research is inconclusive. However if we look at the definition of recovery above “to return to normal state of health, mind and strength” and a player gets that from an ice bath then it works for him or her.

After a workout, training session or tough match your body needs to “repair” itself. With the high workload in professional rugby recovery becomes very important. We are continually trying to get the most out of our bodies to maximum performance. 

We use ice baths alongside a number of other recovery methods to prepare for the next session. The aim is to be as fresh as we possibly can and ready to play our best on the field. It is believed ice baths or the cold helps bring fresh blood and oxygen to your muscle tissue while removing waste products of exercise. Removing inflammation and lactic acid being the two keys for rugby players.

Rugby and Lactic Acid

Lactic acid is an organic compound with the formula CH3CH(OH)CO2H. In its solid state, it is white and water-soluble. In its liquid state, it is clear. It is produced both naturally and synthetically. This can be caused in the body by repeated sprint work or wrestling over the ball. 

Very common for sevens players as they are required to sprint a lot more. Too much lactic acid build-up can cause your muscles to function poorly and will often lead to fatigue. Being fatigued as an athlete is never a good thing, trust me.

Rugby and inflammation

Inflammation (from Latin inflammation) is part of the complex biological response of body tissues to harmful stimuli, such as pathogens, damaged cells, or irritants. It is a protective response involving immune cellsblood vessels, and molecular mediators. Inflammation generally happens from the higher impacts, tackles and collisions in Rugby. The function of inflammation is to eliminate the initial cause of cell injury, clear out necrotic cells and tissues damaged from the original insult and the inflammatory process, and to initiate tissue repair.

So why should I care?

So why should Rugby players care? Well firstly is it very cost effective. If you want to take your game to the next level you will need to optimize your recovery process. If you can recover quicker you can do more in the gym and on the training field. If you can do more you can learn more. 

If you learn more you can get better and push for selection in a professional team. After a lot of ice baths or cold exposures the body does start to adapt even though we may not like it. The cold exposure gets less intense the more you do it and can be a benefit for not only recovery but for fat loss and your general health.

Who is the Iceman then?

Wim The Iceman Hof.

This is where you can see how powerful cold exposure can be. You might be thinking who the hell is Wim Hof. He is not a rugby player and I wanted to read about rugby players. Trust me when I say we can learn from everyone in all different areas of life not just rugby players. Check out a few of his videos on youtube he is awesome. Here is one of him at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. He also attempted to summit Everest in just his shorts but stopped 5000ft short due to a foot injury. 24000ft up Everest in your shorts is a massive effort.

He is living proof of how exposure to the cold has allowed him to directly control part of his brain and immune system. Something scientists thought was impossible. Obviously I am not a scientist so cannot give you a load of long words but the proof is in his book and online to see. (Epic video by the way from VICE no affiliation at all)

What are other methods of recovery for Rugby?

Hot cold contrast

By using the ice bath for just a minute and then transferring to a hot shower then repeating the process 3 – 4 times can be very beneficial for the body and recovery. If you do not have access to a bath or ice bin you can use a very cold shower and a hot shower to almost replicate the same.

Ice packs and compression

Ice packs can be directly applied to the affected area or injury to help recovery. If you have suffered a soft tissue injury icing the area for 10 to 20 minutes every hour on the hour has worked for me. I have even set my alarm and woken up at night to ice to that I can get back playing quicker. Quickly back to icing at night, I wouldn’t recommend this as I didn’t find much of a difference and sleep is important.Compression pants, socks and shirts can help aid recovery. I only ever use the pants or socks as I find after too long they get a bit uncomfortable.

Sleep

When I played at Bay of Plenty our trainer would always measure sleep, sleep quality and amount of hours. Our trainer would use it to keep an eye on rest, mood and workload. When you train like a professional normally sleep is not a problem. However as rugby players sometimes sleep can be difficult. Not because we can not fall asleep but the fact that we might have soft tissue injuries, niggles or full on injuries. Quite often we have a niggling shoulder injury or AC joint problem that does not allow us to lie on our side. 

Sometimes our bodies are so beaten up after a game that everything hurts. While we sleep most systems are in an anabolic state, building up the immune, nervous, skeletal, and muscular systems. I have been perscribed by my doctor sleeping pills once before as my body was in an absolute mess. I wouldn’t recommend this as if you take them and stay up playing cards your coach might think you are drunk. 

You also get a metallic taste in your mouth in the morning. The best aid to help sleep for me has been having a cup of night time tea with honey and apple cider vinegar and then writing a journal and reading. The tea alone will be awesome if you are not one for reading.

Having a bath with salts

Sometimes is not the best method to recover after a game or a high impact session of rugby training. If you’ve had a weight session or a conditioning session with low impact this can be an ideal way to recover not just physically but mentally. 

In New Zealand there are a lot of natural springs and baths to go to but you can simply pour one to two cups of epsom salts into a hot bath. If you want to have a super bath borrow some of the missus lavender or chamomile oils as it helps relax the body and light a candle. Then invite your missus in share the bath.

Stretching and warm down

Often overlooked by Rugby players as we tend to finish the game and head straight into the changing rooms for a beer. Just a small amount of exercises and stretching can have a massive impact on your body and its ability to recover.

Yoga or Pilates for Rugby

Often overlooked by Rugby players. Yoga and Pilates can be a great way to recover as it incorporates a lot of stretching, mobility and posture work. Both can help your mobility, strength, endurance and help prevent injury. I am not an expert in either field so check out your local studio. There will be a number of good looking girls there if you are a single man.

Foam Rolling or Using a Ball

Foam rolling is a highly debated recover method. A lot of professionals will argue whether it is an effective recovery method or a way to help warm up the muscle. The evidence is still unclear as to its benefits but if you find it works for you then keep doing it. Another good recovery method is to use a hockey or lacrosse ball to roll over your muscles. This method is a way to release tight muscles without having to get a massage or pay for one. This is one of our favorites.

Hydration and Nutrition For Rugby

Being hydrated is very important at all times not just for your health but athletic performance. Research has shown that athletic performance diminishes when we are dehydrated. I am not going to go massively into nutrition in this article but simply mention some of the foods that should be in your diet to help with inflammation. If you are not eating them it might be an idea to add into your diet.

Below are our go to’s:

  • Oily fish or fish oil tablets (make sure they are good quality)
  • Blueberries and raspberries
  • Beetroot
  • Nuts
  • Leafy greens
  • Garlic, turmeric, ginger
  • Tomatoes

If you are looking for more information on your diet check out a post done by Ruck Science on the All Blacks diet.

Active Recovery for Rugby

Going for a swim in the pool, walking in the pool and stretching in the pool is a way to use active recovery to benefit your rugby. Simply getting on a spin bike and rolling the legs over can have massive benefits. Going for an easy walk can also be a no-brainer as you are outside and you can take the missus or girlfriend. 

When you have had a massive game sometimes the pool is the only option. (This is the option I like the most and get the most from). This is a core recommendation of our recovery programs.

New Technology and Cyrotherapy Recovery For Rugby Players

There is also new technology out in the market which looks like it belongs in an Arnold Schwarzenegger film. It is called Cyrotherapy. Cyrotherapy chambers are popping up like tanning salons throughout the world. Basically, instead of getting into cold water, it uses nitrogen vapor and technology to drop the temperature around you with your head outside of the chamber. 

However, this comes with a cost. I would say if you live somewhere cold or next to the ocean just use what you have available to you. Good video here from Northampton Saints on recovery.

Helpful Tips when experimenting with Rugby recovery methods

  • Start with a cold shower (you can gradually turn it from warm to cold so your body adjusts) Start with just one minute, then increase incrementally as you adapt short exposures at the start can be just as beneficial as longer exposures later. When you are exposed to the cold bath or shower you immediately start to gasp for air. Just relax and invite the cold onto the body and control your breathing. It sounds silly but just try and enjoy it and do not push past your limits into pain. When you have a negative experience to a new habit you will not want to do it again.
  • Consider trying a contrast bath
  • Be careful and always have someone around to monitor.
  • Use your physiotherapy or massage therapist to help recovery
  • Use ice packs on joints and soft tissue injuries
  • Re-hydrate before you go hard on the booze. Or if you have a knock or injury we recommend not having any booze.
  • Having the same routine before bed can help with sleep
  • Do not mock yoga until you try it.
  • Find out what works well for you and do more at that.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to learn more sign up to our free email club to get exclusive email content. Many thanks and good luck with your Rugby.

AUTHOR

Nick McCashin

Nick McCashin

Nick McCashin is a former Bay of Plenty representative who has played professionally in England, France and Spain. Nick is currently playing and coaching in Scotland where he is writing and developing content to help players excel on and off the field.

HAVE YOUR SAY...