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Surviving the Season by Craig White (Wasps Rugby) & Mark Bitcon (Glasgow Rugby) - click here to view

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Surviving the Season by Craig White (Wasps Rugby) & Mark Bitcon (Glasgow Rugby)


The physical training and competition demands on a professional rugby player are extreme. A typical Zurich Premiership club player may have to play between 30 and 40 games per season, including pre-season friendly matches and cup competitions. The length of a full season, including pre-season, is typically around 47 weeks, giving the players only 5 weeks off-season break. However, because of the importance of physical conditioning in rugby today, players are now also training in the off-season, especially players who need to significantly increase their strength levels.

It is evident that there is minimal time available between training and competition for rugby players to physically recover and re-generate. Rugby matches and training can result in serious structural damage to the muscles, the extent of which is highly dependent on the number of tackles made (Takarada, 2003). Thus a period of 1 week recovery appears to be the minimal duration between two competitions (Elloumi et al, 2003).The obvious answer to this problem is to reduce the training load and the frequency of training bouts in order for the players to fully regenerate between competitions. However, this would probably lead to a significant decrease in physical conditioning. Therefore, coaches and their support staff are looking for ways to speed up the recovery process between training and competitive bouts, which will enable them to continue training and playing at an optimal intensity during the week.

Recovery strategies and techniques are fast becoming an important part of physical preparation within sport, especially rugby. However, scientific information within this area is sparse mainly due to the difficulties in recruiting professional sportspeople as subjects. Because of this lack of scientific evidence, many coaches and support staff are still sceptical. However, having experimented with various recovery techniques within the last 18 months, it is evident that the majority of our players from a 45-man squad believe that recovery sessions and the use of different recovery modalities are a vital part of their overall physical and mental preparation and development.

The mechanisms of fatigue within rugby training and competition can be quite complex and include metabolic, immune, muscular, neuromuscular, mental, and training based factors and it is not within the scope of this study to discuss these as this would justify a whole article in itself. The aim of this article is to highlight current practical recovery methods used with a professional rugby squad that have been used successfully on a regular basis over the last 2 seasons. The methods discussed are simple and do not require expensive equipment or facilities. This will enable other coaches and support staff at all levels to discuss these methods and practise them within their own training environment. Other current areas within recovery such as hyperbaric treatment, compression, eloctro-muscular-stimulation (EMS), Omegawave assessments, water jets, float tanks, electromagnetic shielding and nutritional techniques will not be discussed. These are relatively new methods and some of them require expensive equipment to administer.

Monitoring Body Weight
It is essential that body weight is monitored on a regular basis throughout the season. This is a simple method to assess hydration levels and also can act as a crude marker of overtraining and recovery. Although the ideal time to measure body weight is probably in the morning after waking from evening sleep, this is not practical for a squad of 45 players, and it is probably a better idea to weigh players as they arrive for training or before the first training session of the day. Body weight can also be measured after morning training and before and after afternoon or evening training but we have found the morning measurement to be sufficient and the most accurate, especially if measurements are taken everyday.

It is vital that the same set of weighing scales are used and that these are calibrated on a regular basis as there can be significant differences between different sets of scales. Also, players must be measured in their shorts only or in shorts and t-shirts for females. It is a valuable exercise to display these daily body weight measurements to the players. In this way a player can become familiar with trends and establish better hydration strategies to enable a more stable trend to develop over the season.

Cold Related Methods
The use of ice in treating sport related injuries is common within rugby and is used to provide pain relief, to blunt the bodies’ inflammatory response and reduce swelling. Since the symptoms and causes of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) are believed to closely match those of an acute soft tissue injury, research has been conducted to test the effectiveness of ice therapy on DOMS. A study by Eston & Peters (1999)showed that a 15 minute cold water immersion following eccentric arm contractions reduced muscle stiffness, increased the angle of resting arm angle and reduced lower plasma creatine kinase levels. Although the majority of research within this area can be conflicting, anecdotally, our player’s value the use of ice baths highly and incorporate them into their daily training routine.

However, ice baths are no easy option. It takes a strong will and belief of its benefits for players to sit or lay within them. As with any adaptation process it is important that the two principles of progression and overload are used. Since rugby training and competition stresses both lower and upper limbs we recommend whole body ice baths initially starting with 1 minute sessions and progressing to a maximum of 10 minutes over approximately 10 weeks. However, for sports that predominantly stress the lower extremity, such as football and running, the lower limbs should be immersed only.

Although, ice baths may be taken after every training session we have found the most benefits after rugby training sessions, which involve collisions and high intensity periods of training. As well as enhancing the recovery and regenerative processes within the body we also believe that ice baths can reduce the chances of soft tissue and contact injuries from manifesting themselves during the 24-48 hour period after high-intensity rugby training sessions and competitive games although further scientific research is needed to prove this anecdotal assumption.

Contrast Bathing

By combining hot bathing with ice baths it is proposed that this has a pumping effect on blood flow due to the combination of vasoconstriction (cold) and vasodilation (hot). This effect may enhance the removal of metabolic by products and raise the profile of various hormones required to assist in optimal immune activity. Contrast baths are typically administered for five to 10 minute periods with treatment time consisting of a series of anything from 1minute to 3 minute alternating hot and cold cycles. For a relaxing recovery effect, the treatment ends in the hot bath and for a more stimulating recovery effect it ends in a cold bath (Herring,1990; Hillman & Delforge, 1985; Kalenak et al, 1975).


Probably the most common, inexpensive and frequently used recovery modality is massage. This can provide for both restorative and regenerative recovery and give the individual athlete and medical staff feedback about the physical state of specific body parts. Restorative massage is used after training and competition and is reported to be twice as effective in terms of releasing muscular tension as passive rest (Birukov & Pogosyan, 1983). The duration of treatment may vary depending on whether massage is localised or is a general full body therapy. The manipulation process may help facilitate the drainage of venous blood, thus altering vascular pressure. The increase in blood flow may also help to increase the temperature of the manipulated area. Massage may also be more effective if used in conjunction with other recovery modalities and used the day after competition in structured recovery protocol.

Aerobic Exercise and Water Training

In summary, the literature suggests that aerobic fitness enhances recovery from high intensity intermittent exercise through increased aerobic response, improved lactate removal and enhanced phosphocreatine regeneration (Tomlin & Wenger, 2001). Active aerobic recovery removes lactate from the blood more quickly than passive recovery. Other factors associated with aerobic warm downs include reductions in body temperature, reductions in blood flow, reduced nervous system activity and possible benefits to the immune system (Reilly,1998).

The best time to perform an aerobic recovery session would be either immediately after or the day after competition or an intense training session that significantly fatigues the metabolic system, such as a hard interval session or rugby contact session. Although the easiest form aerobic training is jogging, non-impact activities such as swimming or aqua jogging are preferred to limit any chance of exacerbating any structural lower limb damage that may have developed during competition or training. The use of aqua training can also help to promote feelings of relaxation and have a massaging effect on the body. The intensity should be approx. 70-85% maximum exercising heart rate but we believe that this is not critical to the effectiveness of the session. Please be aware that if you choose to perform swimming as an aerobic recovery aid you may have to reduce normal maximal heart rates (running based) by about 10-15 b.p.m due to the hydrostatic pressure of water.


Combining Various Methods

A good recovery strategy or protocol should include a combination of different modalities. By combining different methods the many different processes of full recovery and regeneration can be targeted collectively. Two examples of mixed methods that are easy and simple to administer and supervise are given below:-

Example 1

1. Ice Bath (between 1 and 10 minutes depending on stage of adaptation)

2. Aerobic Recovery (approx.20 mins @ H.R 70-85% of Max)

3. Massage (approx. 20 mins)

Example 2

1. Hot and Cold Contrast Bathing

2. Massage (approx. 20 mins)


Free Time (The Key Factor)

It is vital within a training and competitive season of approximately 47 weeks that players are given free time away from the training environment in addition to the standard one day off per training and competitive week. Although, these periods of free time may be structured within a periodised seasonal plan, we have found that the number and timings of competitive games usually determine when it is possible to implement free time. It is our experience that player’s respond better to periods of free time that last between 3 and 10 days. Player’s need time to spend with families and time to take vacations. It is not possible for this to happen with only 1 or 2 day periods of free time and coaches need to be made aware of this. We have found by implementing these periods of free time into our seasonal plan that training intensity throughout the season tends to be very high probably because player’s are aware when they have free periods approaching. Remember, a happy player will most likely perform to his full potential on a regular basis.


Birukov AA, Pogosyan MM. (1983).Special means of restoration work capacity of wrestlers in the periods between competitive bouts. Teorla I Praktika Fizicheskoi Kultury.Vol.8,pp 21-24.

Elloumi M, Maso F, Michaux O, Robert A, Lac G.(2003). Behaviour of saliva cortisol [C], testosterone [T] and the T/C ratio during a rugby match and during the post-competition recovery days. Eur J Appl Physiol.90(1-2):23-8.

Eston R, Peters D. (1999). Effects of cold water immersion on the symptoms of exercise-induced muscle damage.Journal of Sports Science.17 (3): 231-8.

Herring SA.(1990). Rehabilitation of muscle injuries. Med Sci Sports Exerc.

22: 453-456.

Hillman SK, Delforge G.(1985).The use of physical agents in rehabilitation of athletic injuries. Clin Sports Med 4: 431-438.

Kalenak A, Medlar CE, Fleagle CB, Hochberg WJ.(1975). Athletic injuries: Heat vs. cold., Am Fam Physician. 12: 131-134.

Reilly T. (1998).Recovery from strenuous training and matches. Sports Exercise and Injury.4 (4), 156-158.

Takarada Y. (2003). Evaluation of muscle damage after a rugby match with special reference to tackle plays. Br J Sports Med.37 (5):416-9.

Biographical Details

Craig White

Craig has worked extensively as a Strength and Conditioning Coach within many different sports including rugby union, rugby league, football, and wrestling over the past 9-10 years. Formerly, Fitness Co-ordinator for the Irish Rugby Team (1998-2001), and Bolton Wanderers Football Team (2001-2002), he is currently the Director of Fitness for London Wasps Rugby Football Club and has been in this position since June 2002.

Mark Bitcon

Mark was the Senior Strength and Conditioning Coach for London Wasps Rugby Football Club and has been in this position since June 2002. He has now moved onto Glasgow Warriors Rugby Club. Mark has also extensive experience within many sports. In June 2001 he assisted as Strength and Conditioning Coach with Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL and currently advises the England National Lacroose Ladies Team.

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