Effect of Cold (57O F) vs. Ice (41O F) Water Immersion on Recovery from Intermittent Running Exercise
Link to research paper
The use of cold-water immersion for recovery in athletes?
Athletes today understand the importance of recovery for the achievement of long-term physiological adaptation. Exercise (i.e., training) provides the stimulus to adapt, but true adaptation takes place when an athlete is recovering. It is not surprising that, recently, more and more attention has focused on enhancing and maximizing recovery techniques in athletics. We see this everywhere today, from massage guns to pressurized boots and new foam roller designs to specialized compression apparel. However, before technology and marketing accelerated the realm of athletic recovery, a simpler method of promoting recovery was to immerse oneself in a cold tub of water or ice. It was, and is, believed that immersing oneself in cold water will enhance recovery and promote a reduction on muscle soreness, thereby allowing an athlete to be more ready to train hard the next day. This method of promoting recovery is still marketed today as an effective way of enhancing recovery and reducing soreness. Aside from other forms of recovery (e.g., massages, massage guns, recovery boots, compression socks, etc.), what is the ACTUAL evidence to support the use of cold-water immersion on recovery in athletes? As we will find out next, the evidence is surprisingly scarce to support its benefits. Let’s dive into a recent study that aimed to look at the effects of different temperatures of cold-water immersion on recovery from running exercise.
What did the researchers study?
Researchers asked nine young, male, team-sport players to perform 45
minutes of intermittent running followed by 1) cold-water immersion at 57 degrees F, 2) cold-water immersion at 41 degrees F, and 3) seated rest with no cold-water immersion (control condition). Each athlete performed 3 separate days of running (45 minutes of high and low intensity running) followed by one of the three recovery protocols outlined above until they completed all three recovery protocols. Each day or running+recovery was separated by at least seven days of rest to allow for adequate “washout”. After each athlete completed all three recovery protocols, researchers ran analyses to see what the effects of the various recovery protocols were on the outcomes below at 1) immediately post-exercise, 2) immediately post-recovery session, 3) 24 hours after exercise, 4) 48 hours after exercise, and 5) 72 hours after exercise:
1. Cycling peak power output and mean power output (a measure of power output)
2. Blood lactate
3. Blood creatine kinase (marker of muscle damage)
4. Perceived muscle soreness
What are the major findings?
The major findings from this study are as follows:
1. Cold-water immersion at 41O F improved recovery of power output capacity at 24 and 72 hours after exercise
2. Cold-water immersion at 41O F was more effective for restoring power output capacity to baseline levels when compared to cold-water immersion at 57O F
3. Cold-water immersion at both temperatures did not have any meaningful effect on blood lactate levels, creatine kinase levels, nor perceived muscle soreness at any time point
What do these findings mean to YOU as an endurance athlete or coach?
These findings are somewhat interesting for athletes and coaches as basically it shows that cold-water immersion may not be as great of a recovery method as previously believed and as currently marketed. Authors in this paper also discuss that there are mixed results from other studies that have investigated the effects of cold-water immersion on recovery. Cold-water immersion has been shown to have some benefit for promoting recovery, but has also been shown just as often to have no benefit for promoting recovery. The findings are mixed at best, and this study lends further support to these mixed findings.
Putting the findings into context, I don’t think cold-water immersion is completely useless. It may be effective for promoting the recovery of an athlete’s ability to generate power (important for all endurance athletes) when cold enough (41O F) and when done for 5-15 minutes immediately post-exercise. However, one caveat here is that it is likely only useful after intense exercise that will have induced some degree of muscle damage. In other words, forget cold-water immersion after recovery training sessions as it will likely have zero additional benefit.
In general, however, I would suggest that athletes and coaches forgo cold-water immersion in favor of other recovery methods that have a bit more evidence to support their recovery-enhancing benefits. Here are the top four methods of recovery I would recommend focusing on:
1. Get plenty of sleep! This is perhaps the most important recovery tool any athlete has at their disposal, and although I have not yet looked deeply into this research myself, other researchers I follow consistently claim sleep to be by far the most powerful recovery tool for an athlete. Why? Sleep is where our bodies truly adapt and recover, so take advantage of it! Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep each night and you will be recovering like a champion. This should be at the top of your list of recovery-enhancing tools.
2. Eat carbohydrate (~60-80 grams) and protein (~20 grams) within 30-60 minutes of a demanding exercise session. Consuming these nutrients will do wonders for facilitating the recovery process and promoting adaptation from the exercise session you just completed. There is a TON of science to support this simple habit of eating post-exercise, and this should be a “non-negotiable” recovery method you take advantage of.
3. Include a proper cool-down (5-15 minutes of very easy exercise) after a hard session. A properly executed cool-down will help get the body back to its pre-exercise state quicker and will help get the recovery process started by keeping blood flow stimulated throughout the body after the intense work has been done, thereby helping to deliver nutrients to cells that need it.
4. Foam roll for 5-10 minutes after a hard session. I recently wrote up, in great detail, on the science of roam rolling, which can be found here. Foam rolling does have some evidence to support its use for facilitating recovery from intense and demanding exercise. It can help reduce soreness and promote the recovery of power output capacity, which would be important for just about any endurance athlete looking to train at their best day-in-day out, week-in-week out, etc.
These approaches to recovery above are perhaps the most foundational, particularly #1-3. Nail down these as habits and then, only then, consider adding in other recovery-promoting techniques. Just be aware that many of the “tools” and “toys” out there on the market may have limited or no scientific evidence to support their benefits. Let’s aim to simplify the science of recovery and focus first on adequate sleep, proper post-exercise nutrition, and proper training.
Click on the link below to take a short quiz and test your knowledge regarding the science of recovery discussed in this post!
Happy training, racing, and recovering!
-Ryan Eckert, MS, CSCS