Sam Warburton is currently eating, sleeping and training his way through the first of two, intense, pre-Rugby World Cup training camps in Poland for Welsh Rugby’s national side.
The Cardiff Blues back row, who was voted Welsh Rugby Writers’ Player of the Year last month, flew out to the Olympic training village in Spala last Saturday morning, together with the rest of the 42-man Wales squad, and is currently (Monday) completing the fourth day of a training regime which would have been impossible to achieve on home soil.
Cryotherapy chambers, which Warburton says left one senior member of the squad banging desperately on the door to be let out at his first experience, are being utilised twice a day. The human sized fridges, which the flanker likens to ‘evil saunas’, were first brought down to −120 °C (−184 °F) and hosted players, wearing little more than bathing suits, for 2.5minutes on day one. Now, by day four, the squad enter the chambers in groups of five or six and must remain for up to four minutes at a reduced temperature of -140°C.
The chambers go down to -160°C and Olympic track and field athletes, who are used to them and use them regularly, have been known to stay in them at this temperature for up to 5mins – any longer or any colder is considered dangerous. Warburton is currently unsure if he going to be asked to follow suit.
“We have to cover up our extremities and wear special gloves, shorts and socks to guard against frost-bite,”said the 15-times capped tyro-turned-leader, who captained Wales for the first time in the clash with the Barbarians at the Millennium Stadium in June. There are also masks to put on to enable you to breathe because the air in there is too cold to take into your lungs. The room is full of dry ice, as you might expect, and this is what makes it reminiscent of a sauna, albeit a particularly painful and evil one.
“There is a small window in the door that you can look out of, but, apart from that, the conditions are pretty claustrophobic and my first experience of the chamber was a nervous one. It didn’t help me to see one of the senior boys freaking out and banging to get out on his first attempt. It was totally understandable, but we haven’t let him forget it either! We are quite used to using cold treatments in recovery and we have a huge horse box which is filled with freezing water that we use at the Vale (WRU National Centre of Excellence).
“But this is the first time I’ve been in one of these chambers and the experience is completely different. Obviously, as soon as you go in the cold hits you and you have to keep moving around just to be able to stand it. But then your skin temperature begins to drop and you can see the ice form on the hairs of the boys chests and you start to feel pain searing round your body.
“Some people take music in on headphones and, if you can listen to a whole song, then you know you’ve pretty much done it and it’s time to get out. My tactic is to keep talking and we’ve been playing word association games with each other, anything to keep your mind off the pain and help the time to go quicker. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was a pretty savage experience, but the other side of the coin is that it is definitely working and allowing us to train in a way that would be impossible under normal conditions.”
The squad are in Poland on the current camp for 10 days – the second trip begins Saturday 16th July and returns 26th July – and are basically packing what would normally be deemed two intense days’ consecutive training into one 14 hour period.
A typical day will see them rise at 6am for breakfast, before their first lung-busting session on the track or pitches from 7.30am for at least an hour. Then, just as many of us are starting our working days, the squad plunge their bodies into recovery mode with the first visit of the day to the Cryogenic chambers.
There is time to refuel the body with more food before a full afternoon training session, which is skills based, but just as lung-busting as the morning run-out. These two outings in themselves would normally be spread over a two day period in an average training week, because of their intensity and the demands they make on an athlete’s body, but Warburton has no time to rest in the early afternoon.
Next he and his colleagues will spend a good hour in the gymn in a weights session specifically designed to rugby’s needs, swiftly followed by the second visit of the day to the ‘evil sauna’. Finally, appearing on the schedule everyday at 7.30pm is the ominously titled ‘Hypertrophy Club’, which Warburton casually describes as ‘another hour long gym session, but this time with heavy weights’.
“Normally if you’d tried to put all of that into one day, firstly you couldn’t do it, but more to the point the next morning you’d be no good to anybody,”continued Warburton. “But we’ve all been coming into breakfast saying how good we feel, we are ready and able to do it all again, so we’ve been very impressed with the results.
“The only thing the schedule doesn’t tell you about is the odd hour’s down time you get in between sessions and in the evening after that last weights work-out. Well, I know what I’m doing then and I’m pretty confident the rest of the squad are doing the same – sleeping! If you don’t catch 40minutes when you can during the day, and get your nine hours at night, you would be flagging by the time you got to that first afternoon session.”
The Olympic Training Centre in Spała is one of the most advanced sports centres in Europe, with extensive sports facilities: an athletics stadium, a tennis court, basketball and volleyball courts, an indoor swimming pool, weights room, cryo-rehabilitation rooms, electrotherapy, physiotherapy and magnetotherapy rooms.
Tickets to the Wales vs England Rugby World Cup warm-up match at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday 13 August (kick off 2.30pm) are priced £30 and tickets to the Wales vs Argentina on Saturday 20 August (kick of 2.30pm) are priced at £25 and are on a ‘buy one get one free’ promotion.
Fans can also purchase their tickets for the Millennium Stadium clashes offer online at www.wru.co.uk/tickets or by calling the ticket hotlines 08442 777 888 or 02920 230130 or at local Tesco stores from Thursday.