Fifteen years ago, a small number of coaches and trainers had their athletes applying ice and taking cold baths (Cold Water Emersion—CWE) routinely after heavy workouts or competition in an effort to decrease recovery time.
More recently, coaches have prescribed Whole Body Cryotherapy, which entails ‘chilling out’ in a very cold room for several minutes, post-training or -competing. The main benefit of both techniques appears to be the blunting of inflammation and increased blood flow that occurs after the hyper-cooling of muscle tissue.
An Australian study seemed to support these effects when they were tested on the performance of cyclists.
Participants completed 5 days straight of cycling, including 66 all-out sprints, before completing both a sprint and a time-trial session. Cyclists recovered from each daily session with either a:
- 14 minute cold bath (59o)
- Bath that alternated between hot and cold
- Hot bath
- No bath at all
In this study, the ‘cold’ and the ‘hot/cold’ baths showed significant effects on improving recovery and performance over the ‘hot’ and ‘no-bath’ groups. The cold bath had the best effects on improving power in the sprint test, whilst the hot/cold bath had the best effects on endurance (time trial). The ‘hot bath’ and the ‘no bath’ groups actually experienced a decrease in performance.
However, several other studies have shown that whilst ice baths do have a positive effect on post-exercise muscle damage, there is not adequate evidence to say that they improve actual recovery or performance. Also, the effects of non-water cooling after exercise (so called Whole Body Cryotherapy) are supported by even less evidence.
So considering all the research, it’s clear that there may be some advantages to CWE after particularly heavy workouts or competitions, including the repair of muscle damage. However, it has yet to be proven that it is more effective than applying ice to the worst-affected body parts, along with the most important remedies: good nutrition and rest!