Ice baths or cold air? New research into sport and exercise recovery

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New research from University of South Wales (USW) investigates how cryotherapy (cold treatments) can affect athletic performance.

In recent years, Whole Body Cryotherapy (WBC) treatment (which involves exposure to extremely cold air of less than -100°C) has become an increasingly popular tool for athletic recovery. It has been the subject of media coverage due to the reported use of cryotherapy chambers by Warren Gatland's Wales rugby union team and, more recently, Leicester City football team. According to press, Christiano Ronaldo spent £50,000 importing his own cryotherapy chamber.

Dr Adnan-Haq, researcher in Sport and exercise scienceDr Adnan Haq, Lecturer of Sport and Exercise Science at USW, said: "It is important to provide the sporting community a stronger evidence base to justify the use of WBC, particularly when cold water baths are readily available and much cheaper. Existing research on cold water immersion (CWI) suggests that repetitive cold can have negative repercussions on building muscular strength. This would be counterproductive for athletes undergoing training programmes despite the short-term recovery benefits”.

“However, it is not clear whether the same interference effect is present with repetitive use of WBC" 

The investigation tracked two groups of participants through a six-week training programme. One group of participants underwent repetitive WBC and a control group undertook the training without cryotherapy. The participant's muscle strength, body composition, aerobic fitness and leg power were measured before and after the programme.  

"The findings indicate that repetitive WBC did not have a negative impact on muscle strength development following the training programme. WBC may therefore be preferable to CWI for repetitive use during training cycles, since it can support recovery, but without negative consequences on strength development,” said Adnan.

“This may be positive for cryotherapy usage from a sporting community perspective, but further research is beneficial to clarify the mechanisms better and whether repetitive cold could have a negative impact on development of muscular power.”

Dr Adnan Haq belongs to the Sport, Health and Exercise Science Research Centre.