This is a question I’ve had asked of me on numerous occasions. It is one aspect of the professional sportsperson’s life that has been well reported in the media and has resulted in uptake by many of the amateur sporting population. Judging by the number of times it’s been mentioned, a large portion of those doing it aren’t really sure why they are and expect it to be a one stop shop for recovery post training.
First of all the theory behind cold water immersion. It is thought that it reduces swelling and causes blood vessels to constrict and allow blood to pool around the previously active muscles. This allows the metabolic by-products of exercise to enter the pooled blood and be removed once peripheral blood flow continues after bathing. Another method that may help is alternating a hot and cold stimulus (easily done with a shower), otherwise known as contrast water therapy. The intermittent mix of cold and hot water effectively switches peripheral blood flow on and off helping to ‘pump’ lactic acid and other by-products away from the muscle enhancing recovery and reducing impact of damage to the muscle. Both have shown reductions in muscle soreness post training and recovery of markers of strength and power.
Research is inconclusive as to which method is better, if either, and different individuals may find one preferable to the other which would perhaps indicate the importance of central fatigue (theorised that the brain acts as a protective mechanism to prevent excessive damage to muscles). Most athletes I’ve worked with have found one of the two to be of benefit and it is worth trying both to find one that works for you. The one point to note would be that it isn’t necessary to use an ice bath and that cold water immersion at around 15°C for 10 mins has been shown to work. Contrast therapy has been used with different protocols and some experimentation will help individualise your preferences, but 1 minute at each temperature changing 4-5 times should be a decent starting point.
The main point on recovery strategies to note is that there is no one method of recovery in the literature that works for everyone and an individualised holistic approach will most likely bring about the best results. Good quality nutritional intake consisting of a protein and carbohydrate heavy meal/drink, preferred passive recovery method (cold water immersion, contrast immersion and massage etc.) and/or active recovery (light jog or cycle post training etc), a sound 8 hours of sleep and a nap post training if possible will likely provide excellent results. Keep checking for a new, more detailed, piece on recovery under we believe in the near future.