In a world where technology has allowed for more to be done on the human body, cryotherapy has become more mainstream in the field of sports recovery and performance. Today, it’s not uncommon for people to use ice baths to treat injuries that soft tissue injuries, orthopedic injuries and pinched nerves. It is also used extensively in the athletic and sports performance world to reduce inflammation and reduce injury impacts.
All the research done on cryotherapy and cold water immersion suggests it is better for endurance athletes than strength athletes1. Cyclists were shown to have improved performance levels after this therapy.
It is not surprising as all the research so far suggests that cryotherapy has a beneficial effect on type 1 muscle slow twitch fibers that are responsible for endurance as opposed to type 2 slow twitch fibers which are recruited in power, speed and explosive work.
Here’s what that research says
Recovery from injuries (e.g., trauma, overuse) and after-season recovery are the main purposes for application. However, the most recent studies confirmed the anti-inflammatory, anti-analgesic, and anti-oxidant effects of this therapy by highlighting the underlying physiological responses. In addition to its therapeutic effects, whole-body cryotherapy has been demonstrated to be a preventive strategy against the deleterious effects of exercise-induced inflammation and soreness.ncbi
Cryotherapy treatment aims to reduce body temperature by 10-15⁰. If your goal is muscle growth jumping into an ice bath straight after the gym may actually have a negative impact on your progress. Ice baths can help with swelling and pain but the goal of heavy training is to tear the muscle fibers. Naturally the body will produce some inflammation and delayed onset muscle soreness (doms) will occur in the days after training. If you try to prevent this you are stopping or short changing the muscle breakdown and repair process.
Just be careful about repeated cryotherapy sessions as constant use can result in post therapy ice burns, and alarmingly 42% of patients in a recent published medical study of 3012 certified athletic trainers experienced post cryotherapy complications including allergies, skin irritation and burns.
Foam rolling or a light cooldown on a bike, rower or treadmill are probably more beneficial at the end of a workout to a high intensity bodybuilding session. The athlete concerned with endurance, or a MMA or boxer after a fight or tough sparring session may experience the benefits.
There are benefits though for the bodybuilder as cold water is beneficial just before bed time when melatonin levels rise. It can assist in muscle relaxation and recovery.
Between gym sessions, and for general health, cold water can flush out toxins from the body and provide an immune system boost. More on that later.
It’s important to understand just what a cryotherapy process is in order to get an understanding of why it can help with a medical condition, or even as a preventative measure. Cryotherapy is the practice of freezing your body so that it can be treated.
Of course, this isn’t limited to just those who’ve gotten an injury. If you have an injury, you should know that the more you can avoid using pain relievers, the better your chances of healing and avoiding further injury. You might not think that ice baths are particularly effective at treating these conditions, but it’s true. In fact, ice baths have been proven to be a very effective way to deal with these problems and to keep the area around the injury as stable and as healthy as possible.
When you combine ice baths with other treatments, you’ll see a difference in your results. By combining cryotherapy with exercise, you’ll have the ability to reduce the amount of swelling in the affected area, which will ultimately help in reducing any pain or discomfort associated with the injury. You’ll also notice a decrease in pain during and after exercise. And if the injury is severe, you’ll find that it will go away on its own in a matter of days or weeks, depending on your condition.
Forms Of Ice Treatment & Problems
Even if you will never take an ice bath you may have had some form of treatment before using the protocola RICE (rest – ice- compression – elevation) or PRICE (physio then rest-ice…). Ice treatment can include wrapping an injury with an ice pack or towel filled with ice, or applying frozen gel packs or ethyl chloride directly to an injury.
You may think that the longer you leave ice on the skin after twisting your knee, or pulling your calf is the right thing to do. If you keep the pack on too long it can lead to painful ice burns which can blacken the skin and cause painful blisters. Don’t leave the ice pack on for more than 10 mins before checking the swelling after an injury.
This can happen, btw don’t watch if you are squeamish.
There are also many different reasons that ice baths are useful when it comes to treating an injury. You may find that you need relief from a certain ailment. Ice baths can also help relieve pain, and many people use them for the prevention of further injury.
The most common reason that many people use ice baths for minor injuries is to reduce swelling. Because ice is capable of shrinking blood vessels, it’s one of the best ways to deal with swelling.
Cryotherapy ice baths are also very useful for the prevention of future injuries because it can reduce swelling. in areas that have been injured before, especially those areas that have a lot of scar tissue, since ice helps to reduce the amount of time it takes to heal.
Some things that should be considered before you try ice baths for an injury are how long the pain has been going on, the severity of your injury and any potential side effects that could be associated with the treatment. If you are not sure, you may want to consult with a licensed physician, like a family doctor, for further consultation and/or advice.
Because ice baths can help reduce scar tissue in your skin, you will want to make sure that you are not using ice more than necessary as it can also do the opposite and burn skin. Most sessions are in the 2-3 minute range, and it may take a few sessions to wok up to this and get used to the temperature.
If you are suffering from an injury or illness, ice baths may have benefits if you are still experiencing symptoms and/or discomfort associated with the injury. As mentioned earlier, there are some conditions that may require treatment beyond ice, so you’ll want to consult with your physician before you try cryotherapy.
If you don’t have access to a licensed physician to perform ice therapy there are other types of treatments such as physical therapy that may be just as beneficial.
So How Does this Relate To Sports Performance?
Ice baths can help with sports recovery after any physical activity. Ice baths have long been used to relieve sore muscles and aid in the healing process of many injuries. The benefits of ice baths are many, but the main reason is ice is thought to help speed up the body’s natural healing processes.
Bodybuilding, MMA, athletics and all other physically demanding sports, especially contact sports put a lot of stress on the bodies resources. Namely the muscles, tendons, joints and the central nervous system. We’ve all experienced throbbing burning hot tight muscles after heavy gym or sports performances, and even more so after an injury.
For bodybuilders looking to enhance their muscle mass an ice bath straight after a gym session or in the intervening days after a growth push, ice baths probably won’t have the desired effect. They may have the opposite. The body should be allowed to recover and repair without trying to dull the pain or process with an ice bath.
The goal hypertrophy is to rip the muscle fibers with intense progressive resistance weight training and then let the body do it’s natural thing and repair the muscle tissue so it comes back bigger and stronger. Thats the basics, nutrition, performance aids and sleep also play a major role.
Ice baths have been shown to be more beneficial for endurance athletes than strength athletes. If you are not in a muscle growth phase you may enjoy the benefits of potentially reduces muscle soreness and recovery and an immune system boost.
One benefit of cold water is the fact that it reduces the amount of stress on the body, making your recovery easier. When you are having an ice bath, you should try to take your whole body into the tub, and make sure that your feet are completely immersed in the water.
Another thing that an ice bath can help with is increasing your body’s temperature. This will help to reduce muscle pain and it will also help to speed up your metabolism. Many people who take ice baths find that their metabolism starts to increase immediately. Although not the goal this may help you lose weight faster.
Another benefit of this type of treatment is the fact that it can help someone who has recently undergone surgery or a major sports team. While most people don’t expect such extreme measures in their athletic recovery, these athletes tend to use them regularly. These athletes need to get their bodies recovered for their next performance, which is why they find ice baths are such a helpful tool.
Metabolism & Immune System Boost & Toxin Flush Out
Immersing in ice cool water forces your lymph vessels to contract, thus enabling the lymphatic system to shuttle lymph fluids around the body. These fluids expel waste toxins out of inflamed areas. Similar to the effects of a thorough foam rolling session.
Cold water also boosts white blood cell activity which is the body’s natural defense system against diseases, viruses and infections. Give your body a natural covid-19 barrier.
One of the biggest things that people notice about athletes who use ice baths during sports recovery is that they feel more motivated. Because ice is such an effective way to cool down the body and boost its metabolism, it also gives the athlete some protection recover from illnesses.
It’s also a great way to make sure an athlete does not injure themselves further from niggling aches and pains and recurring inflammation spots. Naturally this is very common for repetitive sports where the same movement is performed tirelessly. Ice baths can help to relieve pain and swelling and keep this from causing more damage to trouble areas. This is especially useful for sports players who have an injury, because it means that they can go back out on the field again with better recovery.
Using ice bath as part of sports recovery should not be done by just anyone. Even professional sports therapists have reported almost half of the people who use them have side effects. For me for now regular cryitheraphy should stay in the domain of professional team sports doctors and physios labs.
If you are going to use the services of a sports therapist the key thing to remember is to do this process slowly to reduce any chances of injury to the muscle and further damage from the side effects of cryotherapy.
How To Cheat With Cold Showers
Not everyone has the luxury of purchasing an ice bath or going to a professional service for the privilege. You can get a similar effect and a massive positive injection to your immune system by jumping into a freezing cold shower for 2 minutes or more. This still equates to cold water immersion. It may not be enough to drop your body temperature as low as an ice bath but that necessarily isn’t a problem.
The shock of cold shower can stimulate leukocyte production in the bloodstream. Leukocytes are white blood cells and they play a key role in fighting infections once the immune system detects a threat in the body.
Do not heat the shower up before or after you use the cold water. This can be down first thing in the morning to supercharge your immune system and to get the blood pumping. It can also be done last thing at night to enhance relaxation and sleep. If you want to maximize your muscle gain then do not perform this after the gym or during the middle of a growth push.
As you age past 30 or 40 ice baths or cold showers can help you recover faster and keep injuries at bay, leaving you to train with more consistency. Age should not stop you training or working out hard as you reach towards 40 and over.
Research Study Citations
1 Whole-Body Cryotherapy in Athletes: From Therapy to Stimulation – Giovanni Lombardi, Ewa Ziemann, and Giuseppe Banfi 10.3389/fphys.2017.00258