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Players/Officials: Andrew Leipus
In any discussion about cricket fitness there is usually a focus on players not being fit enough or criticisms that they are breaking down too often. As sensationalised as this usually is, it's not always poor or insufficient training, or even increased workload, that is to blame, but a lack of optimal recovery practices.
So what is recovery?
It can broadly be defined as the restoration to a former or better condition, hence its importance to the busy cricketer who is constantly playing, travelling and practising. It is about balanced preparation for peak performance and minimisation of injury. Recovery is a lot more than simply getting enough rest. It is also a difficult subject to cover in any great detail in a short article, so the following is no more than a practical introduction.
Playing cricket or performing any other physical activity places different kinds of stress on the body. The level of stress the body experiences can be placed on a theoretical continuum. At one end of this scale the body may simply need to replenish the muscles with glycogen (sugar) to pre-exercise levels, such as after a low-intensity jog. This restoration occurs in just hours. At the other, more extreme, end of the scale, the body may need to regenerate muscle and connective tissue or regulate biochemical processes stimulated by heavy exercise loads such as heavy weight training or long spells of bowling. This type of restoration may take days to complete. Importantly, all these restoration processes are often sub-clinical, not producing any notable symptoms.
When the body is allowed to rest, it will generally always try to repair itself. Physical breakdown or injury occurs when the load applied to the body occurs faster than the biological repair processes. This breakdown is usually a gradual, insidious and accumulative process. So injury prevention is about controlling the variables, both load and repair.
Stress occurs not just within the muscles, joints and bones. The central nervous and immune systems are intimately affected, especially in terms of the development of mental fatigue and hormonal regulation. But because the body generally copes with stress quite well, players do not see or feel a problem until it is too late.
So what do professional cricketers do to help restore balance and minimise this build-up of stress in the body? There are a number of measures that are implemented, some more successfully than others. Some modalities have been around forever and others are new and expensive. For the sake of simplicity, they can be categorised into either passive or active measures.
Active measures: activities performed by the player to aid recovery.
While a warm-up is designed to prepare the body for exercise, the cool down after the match helps the body metabolise the by-products of exercise and release tight muscle groups that have been performing for many hours. Postural muscles especially tend to tighten after extended use, so a gentle mobilisation/stretch is very beneficial. I prefer players to work on their own, as over-stretching by an overzealous trainer must be avoided. If you're not flexible, your movement patterns can change over time, loading weaker structures unnecessarily.
The player needs to rehydrate as soon as is practically possible, which is why players are given sports drinks containing electrolytes and easily digested carbohydrate while they are still out on the ground. Occasionally players will complain of lethargy, body aches and headaches hours after playing. Before reaching for the paracetamol, check their urine colour and volume produced since completion of the day's play. Dehydration is a common complaint and can be compounded if players drink alcohol shortly after play.
Along with fluids, it is important to provide appropriate nutrition to the body. In the hour or so after activity, the body is more receptive to absorbing and assimilating the nutrients that you consume. A light meal consisting of mostly low glycaemic carbohydrates with protein will help replenish the energy in the muscles and provide amino acids needed in the repair of damaged tissues.
Cryotherapy is a popular intervention used by elite players in a number of ways. Ice packs are typically applied for 15-20 minutes immediately after activity. I encourage bowlers to ice their shoulders and keepers their knees. I'll also ice any areas that have received treatment in the previous few days, the aim being to bring the tissue temperature back to normal levels as quickly as possible. There is a theory that increased tissue temperature results in degradation of cellular proteins, weakening the tissues over time. Either way, the players feel better and it keeps any developing inflammation at bay.
Another method of promoting recovery in the legs is with the use of ice baths. They work on the same principle of restoring muscle and core body temperature to normal as quickly as possible. Players don't tend to like using them in cooler climates but in the subcontinent, where temperatures can go over 40°C, it is a fabulous way to make a player feel fresh between sessions. I recall running around Colombo many years ago trying to find a container suitable for use as an ice bath. We eventually improvised with a black plastic water tank with an opening just large enough to fit a player. It was too big to fit into the dressing room, so players had to use it outside. The benefits of an ice bath in the sweltering heat and humidity of Colombo outweighed any inconvenience. The scientific consensus suggests that a water temperature of 10-12° is optimal.
If available, a hydrotherapy or pool session as soon as possible after play or training will aid recovery in a number of ways. Hydrostatic pressure assists the circulation in the legs - extremely beneficial after a day in the field. Cooler pool water is preferred, as it has a similar effect to an ice bath. Resistance provided by moving in the water also allows gentle functional movements to be performed, further mobilising and stretching the entire body. And don't forget the fun, relaxing aspect of having the entire team in the pool to chat and chill - useful after a long flight or after a bad defeat.
Traditional Indian therapies such as yoga, pranayama and meditation also promote physical and mental recovery with ongoing practice. As they are highly skilled activities, the best results will come with adoption of the techniques over time. Rahul Dravid was an avid fan of meditation and Sachin Tendulkar enjoys his personal master-class sessions with Guruji BKS Iyengar.
Passive measures: measures that don't require any effort on behalf of the player
In recent years there has been a proliferation in the compression garment market, with all major sports brands producing recovery and performance products. Although there is a lot of marketing touting the many benefits, I'm not sure every claim is thoroughly supported by quality research. Regardless, I am a big fan of their use for recovery purposes at the very least. It just makes sense that gentle external pressure applied to the limbs will aid in both venous return and lymph fluid circulation. There are few international players who do not wear some form of compression technology.
The use of massage in recovery doesn't really need much explanation. Every international sports team in every code employs some sort of massage therapist. Although there are many types of massage therapy out there, skilled hands on the body have an amazing regenerative power. In terms of frequency, this is completely variable, with some players never having treatment to others having two to three sessions per week.
Technology has also advanced to combine various technologies. Portable cryotherapy-cum-compression machines have been designed to pump ice water around an anatomical cuff at alternating pressures. This provides circumferential cooling and intermittent external pressure applied to the area being treated.
The South Africans travel with a hyperbaric oxygen chamber to assist with player recovery. The technology is designed to provide greatly increased oxygen saturation throughout the body. Players will sit in a pressurised container breathing in 100% oxygen, which increases the amount absorbed by the blood and subsequently the body. In theory this can advance recovery of the body at the cellular level. Not only does it aid general recovery but players are reported to recover from injuries up to 33% quicker.
Electro-stimulation is also used to enhance recovery. The part of the nervous system that controls the lymphatic system is stimulated to produce contraction of the smooth muscle found in the walls of blood and lymphatic vessels. The player just has to lie with electrodes on the skin and the machine painlessly does all the work.
The final and probably most valuable tool available to the cricketer to aid recovery is sleep. It's free, can be performed in most places, and most importantly allows the athlete to completely switch off both mind and body. Eight hours a night is the minimum a cricketer should be getting. This means quality sleep. Lying in bed watching TV does not allow the mind to switch off. But from my experience with cricketers, one thing they are very good at is sleeping!
As I mentioned, recovery is an extensive area of study and there are many technologies and strategies available to the cricketer. As much as I would like to believe that the interventions provide a cumulative effect if used together, we can only ever hope to optimise the rate of recovery of the player. Similarly, we like to believe consistent practice goes a long way toward injury prevention, since stress is accumulative and sub-clinical. Either way, energy directed towards recovery practices is just another part of the professionalisation of sports.
Gillette Fitness Zone video series presented by Adrian Le Roux will explore fitness exercises to enhance the performance of the modern day cricket player. The 25-episode series will focus on the functional exercises that can be done anyplace anywhere; and then move on to functional and core stability exercises that involve lot of movement and power.