South Africa paceman Dale Steyn in a hyperbaric chamber in Johannesburg.
SOUTH Africa's cricketers have a training aid which appears to be giving them an edge over Australian players who have been struggling with the altitude here. The cricketers, particularly the fast bowlers, have been using a hyperbaric chamber as an aid to recovery, the use of which is controversial but not illegal. Johannesburg, where the second Test is being played, is 1694m above sea level. At that those height, the air is thin and the body has to work hard to keep up the oxygen supply to the blood.
At one point on the second day, fast bowler Peter Siddle was on his haunches and struggling to breathe, and young fast bowler Pat Cummins had to have an ice bath at tea on the first day to relieve his cramping legs. The hyperbaric chamber theoretically enriches the oxygen supply to the body and can provide almost instant recovery. The use of such chambers is frowned on by the World Anti Doping Authority, but is not banned because their therapeutic effects are unproven. Some medial experts claim they do not work as advertised.
Vernon Philander, who injured himself on the first day of the second Test, was seen in the chamber, which is in a gym, during the lunch break and Dale Steyn even tweeted a picture of himself receiving the treatment on Saturday night. "Cricket SA hav got some new toys 4us to use," he posted. "This guy helps with recovery, improving blood circulation!" Umpires monitor fielders' movements and dressing-rooms are checked if they have been off for two overs to ensure they are getting treatment, but there is nothing in the rules to stop them using the chambers during innings breaks or while their side is batting. Manufacturers of the chambers sell them to athletes on the basis they improve circulation, increase oxygen-rich red blood cells and remove lactic acid.
The Japanese Olympic committee issued a warning to its athletes not to use the devices in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, triggering legal action from American manufacturers. The chambers can be used as an aid to recovery from injury but are sold as a training aid. Leading men's tennis player Novak Djokovic uses a $75,000 model three times a week. "I think it really helps -- not with muscle but more with recovery after an exhausting set," he said during this year's US Open. "It's like a spaceship. It's very interesting technology."
American website Hypo2, which promotes the use of the treatment, makes a number of claims that might explain the benefits for cricketers. "Mild hyperbaric oxygen therapy provides greatly increased oxygen saturation throughout the body, allowing the body to get the oxygen it needs to create ATP (Adenosine-5'-triphosphate) for energy and flush out the lactic acid that causes muscle fatigue," it says. "The elevated oxygen levels help athletes increase performance and recover more quickly after a workout. In addition, increased oxygen delivery to the brain facilitates brain function and enhances an athlete's ability to make the split-second decisions that can make a difference in the outcome of the game."
Several AFL and NRL players, including St Kilda star Nick Riewoldt and Wests Tigers centre Chris Lawrence, have used hyperbaric chambers to speed up recovery from injury. Lawrence underwent several sessions in a chamber at the NSW Institute of Sport as he recovered from a dislocated hip this year. And Riewoldt spent up to four hours a day in a chamber in a bid to get fit for last year's finals series after suffering a severe hamstring injury.
"You talk about the one-percenters and these are the things we've got to try if it buys us a week or two," Riewoldt said. "I think long-term is where the real benefit will come. "If it heals that much stronger earlier on, I think long-term it will be a lot stronger and I'll be a lot better off because hamstrings can be fickle."
Breathing in an atmosphere of 100 per cent oxygen is believed to improve healing of wounds, reduce swelling and stimulate new blood vessel growth.