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Softball Pitchers: Leave the Ice in the Cooler (Mostly)

Leave the ice in the cooler

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It’s always interesting (at least to me) when you discovered something you thought you “knew” is actually incorrect. I’ve had several of those moments along the years.

I used to have pitchers start their warm-ups by performing wrist flips. Not anymore – they’re useless at best, and at worst counter-productive to what you’re trying to get to happen.

I used to have players do static stretches – the ones where you stand and pull on a muscle to stretch it, like that one everyone loves where you place one arm across your chest, place the other just above the elbow, and pull. Or where you bend down and try to touch your toes without moving. Then I found out dynamic stretching is far more effective at preparing players to play and prevent injury, because it turns the nervous system on instead of turning it off like static stretches.

Now the latest revelation is that automatically icing after pitching (or any sports activity where there is normal wear-and-tear) may not be such a hot idea (pardon the pun) after all.

This article from Stack, a company focused on training and conditioning, talks about baseball pitchers, but the principle is the same.

The conventional wisdom has always been to ice arms, elbows and shoulders after pitching to help them heal faster and get ready for the next game. But it turns out ice may actually have the opposite effect, slowing the healing process and making a pitcher more prone to ongoing soreness and injury.

The reason is that ice constricts the flow of blood to the affected area, yet blood flow is what is needed to bring healing nutrients to the site, and carry away waste products that get in the way of healing. Again, the article goes into much more detail into the science behind it.

What’s interesting is that most of us have probably heard the acronym R.I.C.E. for treating an injury. It stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. Yet now even the physician who coined the acronym, Dr. Gabe Mirkin, has retracted his support for using ice to treat injuries after seeing the research. He’s also retracted his recommendation for rest, preferring movement instead.

It’s the same for “preventive” icing as many pitchers still do after a game, or a day at a tournament in the case of youth sports players. While ice may temporarily relieve pain, it will also slow down recovery. So just automatically icing an arm, shoulder, elbow or other body part for that matter should be removed from a player’s routine.

This makes sense to me because I remember one time when I was in high school and went to the weight room (something I didn’t take advantage of nearly enough when it was free!). One day I overdid it on curls, and a couple of hours later I couldn’t move my arms. Literally.

I thought they were going to be stuck that way forever. What finally helped was taking a very light pole and going through the curling motion. It hurt at first, but it helped break down whatever was happening in my biceps and forearms and I was finally able to move my arms again – mostly pain-free.

So what should you do instead to help arms heal properly? It ain’t rocket science.

Basically, according to the Stack article, the three keys are light activity/exercise, proper nutrition and getting enough sleep. So when your daughter falls asleep in the car on the ride home she’s not being lazy or tuning out your expert post-game evaluation. She’s healing.

You may also want to speak with a physician, trainer or other professional who is up on the latest information and can give you more specific advice. They’ll know a lot more about it than I will, or Dr. Internet for that matter.

But based on the research, the one solid recommendation I will give is that going forward, leave the ice in the cooler. It’ll be better for everyone.

The importance of rest and recovery for athletes

Just read an interesting and worthwhile article by Arizona coach Mike Candrea for his Liberty Mutual Play Positive monthly column. The topic was sports injuries and how to prevent or at least minimize them.

In the column Candrea talks about some of the causes, especially in softball. He says most injuries in our sport are not the result of something occurring on the field, but of overuse. He points to his own experience where a career-ending elbow injury requiring surgery was the result of over-use in Little League.

One of the big points he brings up, and the one I want to focus on today, is the need for rest and recovery. Today in youth sports there seems to be a focus on playing as many games as we can. When we’re not playing we’re practicing, and when we’re not practicing we’re expected to be conditioning, or doing speed an agility, or doing something else to get better.

All of those are good things, but you can get too much of a good thing too. The importance of rest and recovery time cannot be overstated. This article from the American College of Sports Medicine says, “Rest is a critical component to any good workout routine and time spent allowing the body to recover is a great way to prevent injuries. A rest day must occur at least one to two times per week. Even small breaks during a workout are sometimes required to get the most out of the workout and prevent injuries.”

This article from Stack gets more into the specifics of overtraining. Among the points it makes is that muscles that are worked hard tend to have their proteins break down. If the athlete isn’t allowed to rest the protein continues to break down and put the athlete at risk of injury.

While these things apply to any athlete, they particularly apply to youth athletes whose bodies are still growing and changing. They need recovery time – rest, not just a lighter workout – to avoid injury.

As parents and coaches, it is our responsibility to ensure our athletes have the rest and recovery time they need – even if that makes us unpopular, or goes against the grain of what everyone else is doing.

If you’re an athlete you need to listen to your body. Don’t just try to “tough it out.” You’re not training to be a Navy SEAL or Army Ranger. Speak up if you can’t go. Again, it might not make you popular, and it might cost you playing time today. But better that you’re still able to play a few years from now than to allow some fanatic to ruin your career.

It’s not being lazy. It’s being smart. Listen to the experts. A few less games or practices might be just what the doctor ordered.

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