Recovery Part 4: Cold Therapy

Cryotherapy has become increasingly popular over the past decade.  Whole body cryotherapy  typically involves the participant spending between 2 and 5 minutes in a chamber reaching -85 to -145 degrees Celsius.  This level of cold has been shown to blunt the effects of muscle damage experienced during an exceptionally strenuous exercise bout or following a sports competition or practice.  The evidence we have to date suggests that this process occurs through a reduction in post-exercise metabolism, inflammation and tissue damage.  

While these effects sound quite promising on paper, this may or may not be beneficial towards your goals.  If you workout with the intention to improve strength, body composition, endurance or general well-being, cryotherapy is unlikely to be helpful towards those goals and could have a potential negative impact long term.  How could this be, when reducing inflammation and muscle damage sounds so positive?  First, it’s important to understand what happens when we exercise with intensity:

  1. A new or exceptionally difficult workout causes muscle damage, which is characterized by soreness, swelling, reduced range of motion and reduced strength
  2. In response to this damage, your body will create an inflammatory response in the area of damage, sending various cell types, including neutrophils, macrophages, mast cells, eosinophils, and lymphocytes to the area as the body attempts to heal and regenerate the damaged muscle tissue.  
  3. In normal healthy circumstances, these inflammatory markers subside after 24-48 hours with the tissue regenerated and you’re ready to exercise again.

By interrupting this normal inflammatory response to exercise, cryotherapy has been shown to decrease long term strength and hypertrophy improvements.  Therefore, it is not currently recommended as a chronic means of enhancing recovery.  

It’s important to note that while cold therapy may not be a strongly supported tool when used long term, this does not mean that it cannot be helpful in certain short term scenarios.  If your knee starts bothering you during week 2 of a 24-week running program, we might suggest temporarily dropping your volume in order to gradually build your knee’s tolerance to the work.  However, if you’re 3 weeks out from race day, you may not be able to sacrifice much mileage without risking your ability to complete your event.  In a scenario like this, cold therapy’s potential to temporarily reduce symptoms of pain and inflammation may become useful.  

To summarize, cold therapy is a low risk option that has been shown to relieve symptoms of pain and inflammation acutely.  If you find yourself needing it consistently on a long term basis, this would tell us that you should take a deeper look at why you need it in the first place.

In the final part of this series, I’ll explain how to implement and the benefits of deloads, recovery runs, and planned rest!

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