By Jason Donaldson
PSE Director of Training
We are seeing more people every day using forms of cold exposure as a post-training recovery modality and cold exposure has been a popular recovery modality in professional sports for well over a decade.
Here in Australia, it’s common to see football players braving the ocean the day after a game in the middle of winter walking in thigh deep water. While players from more financially strong clubs are usually found hanging out in commercial ice baths or cold plunge pools.
But what is it achieving? Is post-training (or event) cold exposure something you should be using as part of your recovery regimen?
WHAT IS COLD EXPOSURE?
We define cold exposure as,
“the deliberate and controlled exposure to cold temperatures outside the normal range experienced in one’s daily life to elicit positive adaptations.”
Let’s start with looking at the different types of cold exposure.
WHOLE BODY CRYOTHERAPY, ICE BATHS, COLD-WATER IMMERSION – WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
Whole Body Cryotherapy (WBC)
WBC involves exposure to extremely cold, dry air (below −100 °C) for two to four minutes. Two methods are used: liquid nitrogen and refrigerated cold air. The first WBC chamber was built in Japan in the late 1970s, but WBC was not introduced to Europe until the 1980s, and has only been used in the US and Australia in the past decade.
When we (PSE) talk about cold exposure we’re typically referring to getting into a tub or chest freezer of water at 0-5°C for 3-5 minutes. Although, we like to use physiology as our guide and recommend staying in for 10 breaths regardless of how long or short that is.
Cold-Water Immersion (CWI)
CWI typically involves immersion in cold water, with or without ice added, at temperatures between 11-15°C for 11-15 minutes.
BENEFITS OF POST TRAINING COLD EXPOSURE
There are many benefits to cold exposure including,
- Release of Norepinephrine + Dopamine
- Activation of Brown Adipose Tissue
- Increased Metabolic Rate
- Increase in Immune Cells
- Increased Mitochondrial Biogenesis
- Mental Resilience + Stress Management
- Environmental Tolerance
However, in regard to post-training cold exposure most people are interested in the benefits for recovery from the session so they can perform at their best in the subsequent training session or event. What, if any are those benefits?
A systematic review and meta-analysis conducted to determine the efficacy of CWI on muscle soreness found that “CWI at temperatures of 11-15°C for 11-15 mins, can be slightly better than passive recovery in the management of muscle soreness.”¹
But, a 2015 study found, “Cold water immersion attenuated long term gains in muscle mass and strength. It also blunted the activation of key proteins and satellite cells in skeletal muscle up to 2 days after strength exercise.” with the advice of that study being, “Individuals who use strength training to improve athletic performance, recover from injury or maintain their health should therefore reconsider whether to use cold water immersion as an adjuvant to their training.”²
Further to that study, a 2016 study found that, “cold water immersion is no more effective than active recovery for minimizing the inflammatory and stress responses in muscle after resistance exercise.”
It would seem that the science shows minimal post-strength training benefit and advises against post-strength training CWI, Cryo or Ice Baths, at least for now.
That is exactly our advice. As detailed in the PSE Guidebook – Exposure: Heat & Cold 101,
“We recommend the use of cold exposure at any time EXCEPT immediately before or after Strength & Conditioning (S&C) training. Separate your S&C work from cold exposure by a minimum of 1 hour.”
But what about post-endurance training?
A very recent (June 2018) paper that reviewed the literature on CWI found, “CWI may augment endurance signalling pathways and the expression of genes key to mitochondrial biogenesis following a single endurance exercise session, but have little to no effect on the content of proteins key to mitochondrial biogenesis following long-term endurance training.”⁴
In other words, there may be some benefit related to mitochondrial biogenesis but we recommend, maintaining the minimum 1-hour post-training window until further research is conducted.
CONSIDERATIONS FOR POST-TRAINING COLD EXPOSURE
Whenever I’m asked for advice on recovery modalities my first question is, how’s your sleep? That’s followed by, how’s your diet and usually by, how’s your training consistency?
My point being, get the basics in place first. Sleep is your number 1 recovery tool. But if you’re not training consistently, there’s probably nothing you have to recover from. Don’t get distracted by shiny things.
Let’s assume you’re training consistently, eating well and getting 7-9 hours of quality, restorative sleep every night. If you then want to explore the use of post-training cold exposure, use the method that is going to work for you. If that means getting into a bath of cold water for 11-15 minutes, use that. If you have the spare cash for regular Cryotherapy, do that. But remember, observe the 1-hour post-training window.
Lastly, any cold exposure work has a dose-response relationship. The sweet spot for post-training recovery appears to be 11-15°C for 11-15 minutes. However, that’s not to say exposure at colder temperatures for shorter periods doesn’t have benefits. Know what you’re trying to achieve and know where the dose needs to be to achieve that.
To learn more, check out the PSE Guidebook – Exposure: Heat & Cold 101.
Exposure work is NOT to be used if you have pre-existing cardiovascular or circulatory problems unless you have been cleared by a physician.
NEVER perform Exposure work under the influence of alcohol as you greatly increase your risk of DEATH.
Pushing to levels of harm is stupid. Don’t be stupid. The point is to trigger just enough stress to induce a hormetic response. Hypothermia is not cool and is a failure for training.
ALWAYS Obey the Golden Rule.
If in doubt, get out!