Cold water can help alleviate inflammation and muscle soreness from intense exercise. The concept dates back to the tale of semi-legendary hydrotherapist Vincenz Priesnittz, who, seeing a deer hold a wounded limb in a stream, became inspired to heal the masses with his cold water treatment. Jockeys have known for years that cold water wraps and compresses can speed up recovery and help prevent injury in horses. There are a significant amount of studies, sponsored by the sports industry, showing that cold water immersion bestows some athletic advantages.
Muscle Soreness and Dysfunction
In an experiment at Loughborough University in the UK, researchers ran 20 young males through an intense drill of intermittent shuttle runs, a 90 minute session “previously shown to result in marked muscle damage and soreness”. Half the group was assigned to partake in cold water immersion immediately afterwards in 10 ° C water (50 ° F) for 10 minutes. The control group received no treatment. At regular intervals for 7 days, they measured:
- Perceived muscle soreness
- Efflux of intracellular proteins
The group that received cryotherapy (cold water immersion) reported less muscle soreness than the control group, and tested superiorly for certain signs of muscle damage. The researchers concluded: “The results suggest that cold-water immersion immediately after prolonged intermittent shuttle running reduces some indices of exercise-induced muscle damage. ”
Some studies have looked at how cold water therapy affects physical performance when used in between consecutive days of exercise. These include experimentation with treatment methods for players during a basketball tournament, and likewise between climbing sessions for experienced rock climbers.
The basketball tournament consisted of 29 males, mean age 19.1, playing for 3 days. The researchers aimed to see how different treatments affected performance in fitness tests such as vertical jump, sprints, and sit-and-reach flexibility. Out of three different treatments, they concluded: “Cold water immersion appears to promote better restoration of physical performance measures than carbohydrate + stretching routines and compression garments” .
The rock climbing experiment tested the performance of 13 females (mean age 27.1) who climbed an overhanging wall, twice, separated by 20 minutes of recovery. The recovery methods tested were:
Active Recovery – Riding a stationary bicycle.
Passive Recovery – Doing “nothing”, I presume.
Cold Water Immersion – The forearms and arms were submerged (three periods of 5 min at 15 +/- 1 degrees C).
Electromyostimulation – The forearm muscles received a bisymmetric TENS current (a battery powered current commonly used to reduce perception of pain).
A number of trials over the course of several weeks showed that cold water immersion had a positive effect. The official conclusion was: “Active recovery and cold water immersion are two means of preserving performance when repeating acute exhausting climbing trails in female climbers. These positive effects are accompanied by a greater lactate removal and a decrease in subcutaneous tissues temperatures, respectively” .
Fitness Assessment (Soccer)
“In this study, we investigated the effect of water immersion on physical test performance and perception of fatigue/recovery during a 4-day simulated soccer tournament…. These results suggest that immediate post-match cold-water immersion does not affect physical test performance or indices of muscle damage and inflammation but does reduce the perception of general fatigue and leg soreness between matches in tournaments”.
Pre-Marathon Whole-Body Cold Shower
“To examine the effects of a prerace whole-body cold shower on muscle soreness (MS) and on serum creatine kinase (CK) and creatine kinase MB (CK-MB) isoenzyme activities, 16 experienced distance runners were randomly assigned to one of two treatment categories prior to running a marathon…. The results showed a marked (P < .05) difference between the cold shower group and the group without cold showers for CK-MB/CK ratio, and no difference for CK, CK-MB, and MS”.