Erin Henderson had one item on his agenda when the NFL lockout was lifted for a few hours in April and players briefly were allowed to return to the league's facilities.
"All I wanted to do is get in that cold tub," the Vikings linebacker said.
That sounded like an odd request, but it illustrated how much NFL players cherish that not-so- soothing feeling of submerging their bodies in frigid water for therapeutic purposes.
Well, at least some of them do.
"Hate it," receiver Percy Harvin said. "I'm not a fan of it at all."
Vikings players maintain a love-hate relationship with the cold tub, which is slightly larger than a jacuzzi and located right off their locker room, a few agonizing steps from the hot tub. The cold tub is kept between 50 and 55 degrees, although at least one player prefers it colder.
"You've got to get it down to the 40s before it means anything," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "If you're 44 to 48, that's when it's really good."
The cold tub is a form of cryotherapy, or cold therapy. Athletes in all sports for years have used cold application to combat pain, swelling and other ailments. But rather than pack themselves with bags of ice, many NFL players prefer a polar plunge. One-stop shopping, so to speak.
Some do it because they're injured. Others use it daily to treat aches and pains. A few avoid it like the plague.
Vikings head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman estimates that 50 percent of the roster hits the cold tub after every practice. Sugarman recommends a 10-minute soak.
Love and hate
Depending on whom you talk to, the cold tub is either a fountain of youth, or the bane of one's existence.
Some guys swear by it ...
"Cold tubs add years to your career," linebacker E.J. Henderson said.
Some swear at it ...
"It is the worst feeling," cornerback Antoine Winfield said. "Never will do it again."
Many simply tolerate it because of the physical benefit.
"If your legs are feeling heavy or beat up, it helps with that," running back Adrian Peterson said. "It's like jumping in one of these lakes up here when it's cold. It's brutal. But after about five minutes, you numb up."
Or shrivel up.
"It's like a bodily brain freeze," receiver Greg Camarillo said.
Erin Henderson has dealt with various lower-body injuries in his career. His older brother, E.J., suffered a broken femur two years ago. Both make a point to sit in the cold tub for at least 10 minutes every day. They can't imagine how they would feel if they didn't.
"It definitely does rejuvenate you and gets you ready for the next day," E.J. said. "You'll notice it if you don't do it. You'll be a little more sore the next day at practice."
There's a benefit
Sugarman said that when people exercise, they cause micro tears in muscles. Cold application constricts blood vessels, slows your metabolism and in theory helps to rid the injured area of dead cells. This process brings new blood and fresh cells to the area, which helps facilitate and speed up healing. Cold baths flush lactic acids and reduce inflammation, which is a constant problem in a sport where players endure severe physical punishment.
"That's why it's such a popular modality in our world," Sugarman said.
Some players only put their feet and ankles under the water. Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe goes "belly-button deep" and also sticks his hands and wrists in. Some submerge their upper body. Then there's defensive end Brian Robison, who does his best Michael Phelps imitation.
"B-Rob will dive in it," safety Jamarca Sanford said.
Said Robison: "For some people it's not too bad. Some guys wear sweaters when they go in there."
Sugarman said players experience four distinct stages in the cold tub, beginning not surprisingly with a feeling of extreme cold.
"Very quickly after that you sense burning," he said. "Everyone always says, 'Why does this cold water feel hot?' That's the sensation that your skin gives you. The next thing is ache. You get a pretty deep muscle ache. The last thing is you get numb."
Once numb, it's "smooth sailing," according to Shiancoe.
"I hate it for the first three minutes," E.J. Henderson said. "But after that I love it."
Cold and colder
Not everyone sees the benefit, though. Harvin said he has used the cold tub maybe five times in his career.
"It's not a good feeling," he said. "I see people get in there all the time. I ask them, 'Does this really help y'all recover?' I got in there a couple of times and my legs just didn't recover the way I needed them to."
Winfield, a 13-year veteran, tried the cold tub once when he was younger after seeing some older players use it. He lasted 10 seconds.
"That was it for me," Winfield said.
Sanford said he'll never enjoy stepping into the tub, but he made it part of his daily routine as a rookie.
"It becomes a mindset," he said. "If you don't hit the cold tub, your legs just feel dead and heavy. It recovers your muscles, refreshens your legs. You feel like a new person."
It's especially popular during training camp. The team buys an above-ground pool and puts it behind the locker room with a tent covering it. Sugarman's staff constantly adds large blocks of ice to keep the water chilled as players try to recover after two-a-day practices in hot weather.
It takes a little more mental coaxing to jump in during the winter, especially on days when the team practices outside. Greenway welcomes his daily dip regardless of the circumstances.
"It doesn't bother me," he said. "It's just the blood that I was born with. I love the cold. Getting the special areas in the water is the hard part, but other than that, it's not bad."
« COLD TUBS ADD YEARS TO YOUR CAREER. » LINEBACKER E.J. HENDERSON « Never will do it again. » cornerback Antoine Winfield