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Ice baths helped cure my long Covid - but proceed with caution

charlie in ice bath
charlie in ice bath
Telegraph columnist and racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks in his ice bath at home
Telegraph columnist and racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks in his ice bath at home

Since the early 2000s, I’ve been a huge believer in whole body cryotherapy, although I can’t pretend that I was the original pioneer.

I merely followed the trail blazed by Dr Liam Hennessy, who was the brilliant Irish rugby team’s ‘Director of Fitness’ at the time, and Sam Allardyce, a total visionary who was, to the best of my knowledge, the first person to install a cryotherapy chamber in this country at Bolton Wanderers.

The team that I worked with installed the second, and we got some amazing results with the awesome Andriy Shevchenko [Chelsea], the extraordinarily durable Dougie Freedman [Crystal Palace] and Sir Anthony McCoy, who pushed things past the limit to get back from injury for the Cheltenham Festival. But we failed to establish cryotherapy as a must for sportsmen and women.

It would be unrealistic to think that every racecourse could install a cryotherapy chamber, but after working with McCoy, I became convinced that they could all do with an ice bath. Not only would the anti-inflammatory cold help with bruising from the inevitable falls, it could also stimulate general post-race physical recovery.

Fast forward to 2022, when I found myself stuck in a never-ending spiral of Long Covid. I’d tried what felt like everything to get over it: injecting myself everyday with Ezrin Peptide [anti-inflammatory]; months of oral Low Dose Naltrexone; huge doses of vitamins; Ivermectin [why not, works on horses]; the Chris Evans Breakfast show [better than medicine], and God-knows-how-many diets. I had some positive responses, but I still felt trapped in a not-so-good place.

Then I turned a corner when I combined the Lightning Process, a neuroplasticity program, with cold water ice baths and a CPAP [Continuous Positive Airway Pressure] machine to deal with sleep apnoea.

Since I’d had Covid, unbeknownst to me, I was waking up thirty times an hour in my sleep. I now tape my mouth up every night to make me breathe through my nose and although the CPAP face mask isn’t that appealing to wear, I think the benefit is worth the discomfort.

I also had no idea that breathing, or should I say, how one breathes, was so important before I struggled with Long Covid. But reading Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor was a revelation. Probably the best book I’ve ever read in my life. And I’ve found that taping my mouth up at night while using my CPAP machine ensures I get the benefits of breathing through my nose. The two things complement each other.

And once you’ve read Breath, you must try The Oxygen Advantage by Patrick McKeown. One of his exercises is to intermittently hold your breath [on an out breath] for ten steps whilst walking along. It’s much harder than it sounds. Probably best to read the book before trying it on the way to work.

Ice baths improve wellbeing by bringing down inflammation and bruising, writes Brooks
Ice baths improve wellbeing by bringing down inflammation and bruising, writes Brooks - Getty Images

I believe the “Lightning Process” also played a part. This process uses neuroscience to influence your health using a tool kit which is centred on language, posture movement, coaching and visualisation. I use it to help raise my energy levels and improve my clarity of thought.

Ice baths also helped clear my fog brain and energised me. And I’m pretty certain they speeded up my metabolism and helped me lose weight, which could be a big deal for jockeys.

Under supervision, I gradually built up the time I spent in cold water and how low the temperature was. My longest stint at approximately four degrees was 15 minutes.

Two weeks ago, having sat in an infrared sauna [anti-inflammatory] doing Wim Hof-style breathing exercises to prepare my core, I thought nothing of getting into a swimming pool at twelve degrees for three minutes.

I can remember shutting the pool cover afterwards, but the next eight hours are a total blank. Apparently I had what is known as a Transient Global Amnesia [TGA] incident.

The symptoms of TGA are the same as a stroke, which is what the compassionate paramedic in the ambulance thought I’d had. I was very confused, asked the same question 20 times, and thought Boris Johnson was the Prime Minister. My blood pressure, normally about 120, went up to 177: high given that I hadn’t physically exerted myself in any way.

The recurring theme of TGAs is that they are much more frightening for the family and friends around the people having them, because some of the symptoms do resemble a serious stroke. My wife and daughter were definitely traumatised by my behaviour.

And while the patient feels no pain, the raised blood pressure shows that calm support and reassurance is essential.

I still can’t, and never will, remember being in the ambulance or arriving at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. My first vague memory is my sister telling me that I was getting better before I was sent for a CAT scan.

Thank God my sister was there, because I was seriously confused at that point. Apparently I told her that the whole thing was some kind of Kafkaesque nightmare, which reassured her that my brain wasn’t working too badly! I haven’t admitted to her that I had no idea what that meant.

During that period my brain was unable to make memories. But after eight hours I started to remember things from the past, although the hours preceding this ‘incident’ are still pretty sketchy.

Subsequent research pointed me to Dr Paul Jarman at the Cleveland Clinic, a consultant neurologist. His view of a similar incident, which happened to the 5:2 diet doctor Dr Michael Mosley, was that TGA’s are due to a swelling in the area of the brain responsible for short term memory.

This swelling can be caused by the strain caused by erratic breathing, which is a normal response to entering very cold water.

‘This kind of strain rapidly increases the blood pressure in the chest, which can force the circulation to momentarily move in the wrong direction, up through the veins in the neck,’ Jarman explained, ‘leading to a swelling of the blood vessels in the hippocampus.’

The only underlying issue is probably that I’m a 60-year-old man, and the valves that stop the blood flowing in the wrong direction may not be as “water tight” as they used to be.

Given that the average age of the one in 10,000 people who have experienced a TGA is 62, jockeys are more likely to slip over in the shower.

And, happily, Dr Jarman says there are no lasting effects.

So as long as they are supervised, and they’ve passed their medical, cold-water immersion should be available to them on all racecourses. As for 60-something-year-old men, I wouldn’t want to put you off. I’m still sure there are a lot of benefits – particularly for mental wellbeing.

As the fascinating psychotherapist Owen O’Kane told me at a recent cold-water plunge, “the benefits of cold water are incredible, but it’s good to check you have no underlying health issues before you do it.”

And don’t do it on your own.

Personally I’m going to ease myself back into it after I’ve had an MRI scan just to be sure. And maybe only waist deep, to make sure my breathing is under control.