Most athletes know that icing after a workout or game can reduce soreness. But as more cold therapy techniques are used to help athletes, the big questions are, How effective are they for recovery? and Should you use them? Read on to find out more about the potential recovery benefits for athletes of cold therapy.
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Many experts say that cold therapy speeds up recovery by decreasing circulation to a specific area, resulting in less inflammation and swelling, and that it increases the rate of muscle repair. According to Cedric X. Bryant, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer for the American Council on Exercise, one trend that’s affecting all areas of health—from NFL locker rooms to the fanciest spas—is using freezing temperatures to aid recovery.
“It’s in part fueled by the focus on high intensity interval training,” Bryant says. “With those more challenging workout efforts, individuals experience higher than normal levels of soreness, so there’s a lot more attention given to figuring out what we can do to help people recover from those challenging workout experiences.”
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Types of Therapy
1. Ice Baths
On the efficacy of ice baths for recovery, Jonathan Peake, Ph.D., Professor of Biomedical Sciences at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia, says, “It was consistently shown that icing helped to reduce swelling associated with strains and sprains. By reducing swelling, athletes could return to training more quickly.”
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Cryotherapy involves a few minutes of total-body exposure to temperatures far below zero, and like icing, it aims to decrease muscle soreness by reducing inflammation, enabling athletes to train at a high level every day. Cryotherapy gained popularity in 2011, after athletes like USA track sprinter Jason Gatlin and Dallas Mavericks shooting guard Jason Terry were reported to have used it.
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3. Trigger Point TP Therapy Cold Roller/SKLZ Cold Roller Ball
These techniques simultaneously cool an affected area and facilitate muscle release similar to foam rolling, massage, and trigger point release—which many athletic trainers use to relieve muscle tightness and soreness.
Should You Use Cold Therapy?
According to Bryant, the verdict is still unclear. “As with a lot of the emerging trends, popularity almost always outpaces the scientific evidence needed to support the claims that are made,” he says.
According to a study published in the Journal of Physiology, ice baths, for example, were found to reduce gains in muscle mass among athletes who submerged their bodies in cold water after workouts—compared to athletes who performed an active cooldown on a stationary bike. The study concluded that muscles need sufficient blood flow to grow stronger, and if you follow a strength session with cold treatments that reduce circulation, you could be preventing them from doing so.
Jonathan Peake, one of the study’s co-authors, says, “If the goal of a strength workout is to build muscle mass and strength, then cold therapy is probably not [great], but if the goal is just to maintain muscle mass and strength, then there is probably no harm in doing cold therapy. The effects on aerobic workouts are not so clear, as there is less evidence for any harmful—or beneficial—effects.”
As with ice baths, the benefits of cryotherapy are still up for debate—and remember, use any type of cryotherapy with extreme caution. The FDA has yet to verify the medical benefits cryo-chambers, and there is scant research to support their use in rehabilitation, according to Bryant. Some athletes and others have suffered frostbite from spending time in a chamber; and Nevada recently promulgated new cryotherapy regulations after a woman died in a chamber at the end of 2015.
Bryant says it’s OK to use coolant-infused products like foam rollers to provide targeted myofascial release. Whether they really offer faster recovery than non-cooling rollers remains to be seen.
Overall, cold therapy, when used correctly, can be an effective technique to decrease muscle damage and soreness and help speed recovery. The important things for athletes to remember are that every trend has both positives and negatives, and any time they attempt to use a new technique, they should make sure it is administered by a licensed doctor, physician or athletic trainer.
- Buxton, Madeline. (2016). “The Big Chill: Can Cold Therapy Speed Recovery?” Life by DailyBurn. https://www.yahoo.com/health/the-big-chill-can-cold-1360758156476470.html