Cold Water Immersion

We continue our series on recovery methods. This article examines the science around cold water immersion as a means of recovery

Introduction

Recovery is one of the most essential elements of athletic training as it is the time of growth and repair. It is the time when the hard work is being capitalized on by the body. Enhancing your athletes’ recovery will mean your athletes can train harder, more often and they will be fresh for competition. Last month we looked at the use of compression garments. This month we have researched cold-water immersion as another means of recovery. We tell you if it works and what the best way is to do it based on real scientific research.

What is cold water immersion?

Cold-water immersion is a means of recovery where the athlete is submerged in cold water. The level of submersion, duration and temperature of the water is still a matter of scientific debate however based on the current research we will give you some guide lines on how to get the best of this method.

What the research tells us

Roswell and others (2009) submersed athletes in water at 10 degrees centigrade and 34 degrees centigrade after each match during a simulated football tournament of four days. Players showed no difference in test of physical performance but players in the cold-water immersion group did report less leg soreness and less feelings of general fatigue. This study concluded that cold-water immersion does not decrease inflammatory response or muscle damage but it does lead to decreased perceptions of fatigue and leg soreness. The conclusions were similar from a study on cyclists by Halson and others (2008) who found that cold-water immersion did not show any difference in physiological markers of fatigue compared with participants who were not immersed in cold water. However once again subjective reporting by the participants indicated decreased muscular soreness and less feelings of general fatigue.

Montgomery (2008) looked at cold-water immersion during a basketball tournament and examined the effect of various recovery protocols performance tests. All subjects showed decreased performance in the tests but the subjects who used cold-water immersion showed the least performance decrement. Crawley (2009) found that cold water immersion was more effective in recovery than contrast (alternated warm cold) bathing. With cold-water immersion resulting in lower perceptions of muscular soreness, less time to achieving baseline sprint performance. Vaile and colleagues (2008) found that cold-water immersion and contrast water immersion were more effective in enhancing recovery than either hot-water immersion or passive recovery. In a second study Vaile and colleagues (2008) looked at performance recovery using a series of water immersion techniques. They was found that cold water immersion was an effective way reduce the physiological symptoms of delayed onset muscle soreness and also showed that subjects who used cold water immersion recovered force and power production better than subjects who did not use cold water immersion.

Bailey and others (2007) looked at the effect at the of cold water immersion after prolonged exercise (90min shuttle run test). The testing resulted in extreme muscle soreness and cold-water immersion was shown to reduce some but not all indicators of fatigue. Cold-water immersion improved ratings of muscle soreness and improved muscle force generation compared with subjects who did not participate in the cold-water immersion. In this study creatine kinase (one of the main indicators of muscle fatigue) was not reduced for the cold-water immersion group, unfortunately no reason was offered for this finding in the paper.

Morten (2007) looked at the effect of cold-water immersion on recovery from intense anaerobic exercise. It was found that after an intense cycling test designed to produce a significant amount of lactic acid that submersion in cold significantly improved lactic acid recovery levels during the 30-minute period post exercise. They concluded that cold-water immersion was a valid way of speeding recovery from intense anaerobic activity.

Conclusions

  • Cold water immersion can be used as a means of recovery
  • The evidence primarily suggests that physiological markers of fatigue may not be affected
  • Psychological markers and perceived soreness appear to be the primary beneficiaries of cold water immersion
  • The lack of measured improvements in physiological measures shows more research is required to establish the reasons for the improved psychological recovery as a result
  • There appears to be benefits for most types of exercise
  • We recommend submersion of 1-2 minutes repeated 3-4 times and separated by 30 seconds
  • We recommend a water temperature of 10-12 degrees centigrade
  • Coaches should be aware that this method can be time consuming with large squads
  • In contact sports bleeding and abrasions should be treated and covered prior to submersion to avoid the possibility of cross infection with other team members

References

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