In recent years, methods such as cold-water immersion/cryotherapy have become extremely popular as a way of maximising recovery after training intensely, picking up a soft-tissue injury, or exercising in high volumes. But do they actually give the desired results, and how do they work?
Cold-water immersion (ie ice baths) as a recovery tool seems to be everywhere. You can’t read an article about a rugby team, or watch an ad for GAA coverage, without seeing someone gritting their teeth as they slide into a bath full of ice water that they will spring from, a few painful minutes later, with all their aches and pains seemingly cured.
The word Cryotherapy can be used to describe all methods of “cold therapy” but in popular consciousness it has come to mostly describe cryotherapy suites (essentially exposing the body to extreme low temperatures for short periods of time). Cryo-suites are basically freezers, the size of a small room, that you can stand in or walk around in for a couple of minutes in temperatures as low as minus 100 degrees centigrade. These facilities have also received a huge amount of exposure over the last few years, with high-profile sports teams and athletes regularly visiting cryo-clinics all over the world to avail of their services.
But these methods are not without their critics. Cold water immersion, cryotherapy, even the old reliable of putting an icepack on an injury…all have become controversial over the last couple of years.
At its core, the reasoning behind all “cold” type treatments or therapies is that exposure to cold has been proven to reduce inflammation in the human body, and people typically report a reduction in pain after these treatments.
To many this seems proof enough that these methods must surely work, but there are more things to consider: is stopping or reducing inflammation (and even pain) actually helping us recover from training?
Opponents of these methods say no. They argue that inflammation is the body’s normal, natural response to injury or training stimulus, and to interfere with this process by using cold therapies is pointless and even counter-productive. They also say that any pain relief injured people may experience following cold therapies is a result of the cold interfering with the body’s nerve impulses and not an improvement in the injury itself. There is also evidence that people who have a strong negative reaction to cold therapies (imagine someone who hates the cold being asked to get into a bath full of ice!) will see a strong rise in their levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) which has been shown to hamper recovery.
Have you ever suffered a soft tissue injury and been recommended to follow the well-known “R.I.C.E.” (Rest/Ice/Compression/Elevation) Protocol? It has been in very common use since the 1970s but the inventor of the phrase has since disowned it, saying he may have been wrong and putting ice on an injury might actually hinder recovery.
In addition to these considerations, several scientific studies have recently found that cold therapies can adversely affect the positive adaptations that occur in the body following exercise, reducing the benefits of training sessions. Interestingly though, this seems to differ depending on the type of training someone does. Research shows that endurance athletes like cyclists or runners can actually work harder, more regularly, when using cold therapies like ice baths. But strength athletes partaking in resistance training have demonstrated a decrease in training effect when using the ice baths.
Referring to a number of recent relevant scientific studies, their results could be summarised like this:
The arguments for
Reduction in inflammation/ may increase recovery in endurance athletes/ pain relief
The arguments against
Inflammation is a necessary physical response to injury or training load and using cold therapies to interfere with this process does more harm than good/ benefits of resistance or strength training may be reduced and training adaptations negatively affected/ pain relief is due to masking of pain receptors, not healing of injury
The ultimate verdict has to be that these therapies should not be abandoned, but used with all of the above considerations in mind. They may be right for you but they may not, and the area certainly needs to be researched more thoroughly in the future.