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Bucs turn to cryotherapy to diminish wear and tear

Bucs training camp Thursday, August 4, 2016. Noah Spence, Buccaneer DE, sits in one of the Buccaneers' new cryo chambers. The temperature on the monitor is correct: -206 degrees. The players spend around two minutes in the chamber instead of a 20-25 minute ice bath. Many say the results are dramatic.
Published Aug. 8, 2016

TAMPA — The Bucs certainly hope to be better in the fall under first-year coach Dirk Koetter. They might be smarter, stronger and faster.

And already, at least in brief moments, they are much, much colder.

After any practice during training camp, players are lined up outside a converted storage room in the corner of a training area at One Buc Place. Inside are three silver cylinders, each 7 feet tall, with digital readouts and nitrogen gas spilling out from the top, suggesting perhaps time travel or maybe teleportation.

In truth, it's a little of both. They're cryotherapy chambers, and the Bucs are ahead of the rest of the NFL in embracing a new technology that saves time from players' busy schedules and, they believe, gets them to a healthier place recovering from the trauma of a grueling practice as the team tries to limit injuries.

"When we hired Dirk, we had several meetings with ownership, and we stressed, especially Dirk, the importance of recovery," general manager Jason Licht said. "Our owners are awesome in respect to giving us the resources we need for anything, particularly player health. There are very few things more important."

The Bucs also added a "recovery bar" with postpractice shakes that are key to recovery. They have moved practice to mornings for cooler temperatures. And, in that storage room, far lower temperatures as a line of players are willing to subject themselves to 2½ minutes of air cooled to around minus 220 degrees Fahrenheit by liquid nitrogen.

"It's like you're standing there in your boxer shorts with socks and gloves on and you walked outside in Green Bay, Wis., on the coldest day of the year for three minutes," said Koetter, who has tried it himself.

The science behind it is that your body can't process the idea of something that cold and rushes blood to your central organs in full survival mode. When a player steps out, the extremities are flush with oxygen-rich blood to help with recovery.

So 150 seconds replaces what has long been 20 to 25 minutes in a "cold tub" of ice water, not necessarily a comfortable experience itself. Players must be dry — any water or sweat would freeze instantly, as would any jewelry. Players slowly rotate themselves in the cylinder, trying not to think about the temperature shown behind them in big, red numbers.

"You get a feeling like you can't keep doing it," tackle Gosder Cherilus said, barely a minute after such a session. "But as you keep going you realize it's not that cold. They ask me to keep spinning, because you don't want it to hit one spot. It's a good way to take care of yourself."

A year ago, Bucs team dietician Kevin Luhrs was skeptical about cryo, seeing a few players, including defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and wide receiver Vincent Jackson, paying out of pocket to use the cryo chamber at a private facility run by Tommy Rhee, the team's chiropractor. Luhrs finally tried it himself after a workout and was impressed.

"One hundred percent, I'm sore the next day," said Luhrs, who closely monitors each session now. "The one time I wasn't sore was right after the cryo. Immediately, the next day, I was like, 'This works.' I said, 'I'm going to look into this.' I did my research and said, 'We've got to find a place to put these.' "

The Bucs have bought into the benefits of cryo, though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cites it as unproven, so the agency hasn't approved any devices. Its concerns include the risk of asphyxiation or injury, though players are monitored closely and constantly during their sessions.

Luhrs scoured the Bucs' 145,000-square-foot facility, found a storage room and tore down a wall to make room for the three units. Tampa Bay is now one of only three NFL teams with a cryo chamber in its facility, and the only one with three.

"A lot of times coaches talk about recovery and mention it, but I don't think any coach I've had took the steps Dirk has taken," said safety Keith Tandy, a regular with the cryo treatments.

Licht, long removed from the cold tubs of his football days in college, also tried the cryo himself and was quickly a believer, like Luhrs.

"It's invigorating," he said. "I don't work out as hard as these players, but I did it, and the next day, I didn't have the soreness like I normally do, and I get sore a lot. … You come out, you've got fresh blood and it feels awesome."

The buy-in has been strong among Bucs players — as many as 40 players will rotate into the cryos after a practice. Licht said it was a "significant" investment from the Glazer family, which owns the team, but one that players have noticed.

"They were jacked up," Licht said of the initial response. "They see that we care about their health."

Other NFL teams have reached out to the Bucs, asking about the cryo chambers and how they can implement them in their facilities. Before they do, the Bucs hope to see improved health this season, which could help them in some small way go from leading the league in technology to leading in the standings.

"More importantly, to get ahead of the curve on wins," Licht said.

Contact Greg Auman at gauman@tampabay.com and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.

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