Can whole body cryotherapy improve athletic performance?
It is becoming increasingly popular among athletes, but can whole body cryotherapy improve sports performance? Co-founder of Quantum Cryotherapy Adela Thornton-Wood reviews the latest scientific research.
There is a growing body of evidence to support cryotherapy as an effective tool for anyone who plays sports: from professional athletes competing at a national and international level to those who simply exercise for fun and to keep fit.
The evidence out there at the moment is mainly on the benefits of whole body cryotherapy on recovery time and reducing inflammation.
In 2017, a team of scientists reviewed a range of previous studies on the benefits of whole body cryotherapy for athletes and published their findings in Frontiers in Physiology. The paper is well worth a read as it brings together a wealth of interesting research from around the world. The researchers concluded that after regular whole body cryotherapy sessions, “the final clinical output (in terms of pain, soreness, stress, and post-exercise recovery) is very often improved.”
Faster recovery from sports training
Research published in PLOS One revealed that whole body cryotherapy treatments improved recovery and delayed the onset of muscle soreness in endurance trained runners. The research team found that cold therapy treatment increased the runners’ neutrophil (primary white blood cell) count, which they suggest could stimulate angiogenesis (the formation of new blood vessels), reducing muscle soreness after training.
A study by a panel of German scientists, published in 2015 in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, found that whole body cryotherapy can speed up recovery from high intensity exercise in endurance athletes. The scientists behind the study suggested the improvements could be the result of whole body cryotherapy enhancing muscle oxygenation, as well as reducing cardiovascular strain.
Whole body cryotherapy to reduce inflammation in athletes
There is now a wealth of evidence proving that whole body cryotherapy stimulates an anti-inflammatory response in athletes. I will just mention a few examples. In research published in the journal PLOS One in 2011, runners showed a reduction in pro-inflammatory markers following a series of whole body cryotherapy sessions. The research team concluded that a whole body cryotherapy session performed immediately after exercise enhanced muscle recovery by restricting the inflammatory process.
A similar result was found in research involving professional tennis players, published in the Journal of Athletic Training in 2012. The following year, a study involving professional volleyball players was published in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. It revealed that undergoing whole body cryotherapy treatments before training can help to prevent exercise-induced inflammation.
A number of studies have suggested that the impact of whole body cryotherapy on inflammation will vary depending on an individual’s health and fitness and on the frequency and timing of treatments. More research focusing on these variations could help athletes assess how to get the maximum benefit from whole body cryotherapy.
Cryotherapy to improve bone health in athletes
Bone fractures are common among athletes, and good bone health is important for sports performance. A study involving the national Italian rugby team showed how whole body cryotherapy could prevent stress fractures. Writing in the journal Injury, the scientists describe how the players’ Osteoprotegerin levels were significantly increased following a series of whole body cryotherapy sessions over five days. Osteoprotegerin is a protein that plays an important role in bone metabolism. The researchers suggest whole body cryotherapy could have a role to play in preventing and recovering from fractures.
Reducing the stress of overtraining with whole body cryotherapy
A number of studies have demonstrated the impact of whole body cryotherapy treatments on hormones, including cortisol, associated with psychological stress and often linked to the symptoms of overtraining in athletes.
In research published in the Journal of Biological Regulators and Homeostatic Agents, a team of professional rugby players underwent regular whole body cryotherapy sessions over seven days. Saliva tests on the players revealed a reduction in the stress hormone cortisol, which in excess is associated with a range of health problems. It should be noted, however, that balancing this hormone—not eliminating it—is key to healthy living as Cortisol has a vital physiological role and is best known for producing the “fight or flight” response. When controlled, Cortisol has potent anti-inflammatory effects easing irritation and pain.
A study involving the Polish national kayaking team revealed a number of physiological responses to whole body cryotherapy. Published in 2014 in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, the research shows the benefits of whole body cryotherapy in sports performance. The authors suggest whole body cryotherapy could extend exercise duration or intensity, as a result of a positive effect on the oxidant/antioxidant balance.
There is now a strong body of research demonstrating the benefits of whole body cryotherapy on athletic performance. What may surprise many people is the range of effects it has on the body, from reducing cortisol to improving bone metabolism. I hope scientists will continue to study the impact of cryotherapy on sports performance, so athletes can get the best out of whole body cryotherapy to improve performance.
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