The question of Cryotherapy vs Ice Baths has a surprising answer for combat sports athletes. Competitors training MMA & Jiu-Jitsu will often experience muscle soreness after heavy training sessions and are always looking for efficient recovery options and if something promises to give them an advantage over an opponent they are often willing to try it out especially if it also happens to be spruiked by Joe Rogan on his podcast.
Recently, many athletes can be seen on social media using whole body cryotherapy where they stand in rooms or containers that are chilled to sub-freezing temperatures. Still, the question remains as to how much better are the expensive cryotherapy treatments than the cold water immersion ice baths that athletes have long used before?
Cryotherapy vs Ice Baths: The Evidence
Whole Body Cryotherapy
Whole Body Cryotherapy (WBC) is an increasingly popular recovery strategy. WBC involves spending 1.5-3 minutes inside a chamber that has had the air-cooled down anywhere as low as -150 degrees whereas Ice baths or Cold-Water Immersion (CWI) involves immersing the entire body in cooled water for up to 10 minutes at a temperature of 10 degrees.
CWI is a far more common means of recovery and a systematic review of the literature found that a large body of evidence did support the use of CWI in alleviating muscles soreness post-exercise (Leeder, Gissane, van Someren, Gregson & Howatson, 2011). Additionally, one study looked specifically at MMA athletes and found that CWI following intense training sessions worked successfully to reduce muscle soreness in the athlete (Lindsay et al., 2017).
Cold Water Immersion
While the evidence does support the use of CWI for helping recovery and reducing muscle soreness in the athlete, it may come as a surprise that the evidence is not that clear when it comes to WBC. A study that looked at the effectiveness of CWI when compared to WBC in athletes concluded that clinical trials for WBC were lacking and that most of the evidence supporting it was anecdotal (Holmes & Willoughby, 2016).
Additionally, a meta-analysis of studies testing WBC for athlete recovery found that current evidence was unable to support the claim that WBC worked in reducing muscle soreness or subjective recovery and that no evidence existed at the time that trialled the recovery method on women or elite athletes (Costello et al., 2016).
On top of this lack of evidence to support the use of WBC in athlete recovery, another study found that CWI performed better than WBC for recovery after exercise with the reduced muscle soreness and perceived recovery levels gained from CWI potentially being due to the time spent in each recovery option with WBC being limited to only 3 minutes while CWI can be up to 10-15 minutes (Abaïdia et al., 2017).
Cryotherapy vs Ice Baths
Part of the current popularity in WBC may be due to a bias that “colder is better” when it comes to recovery and the extremely low temperatures that WBC reaches can be seen as unbeatable by other recovery methods. But tests to find the ideal temperature for CWI have found the belief that “colder is better” not to be the case.
Studies show that water temperatures of 5 degrees perform worse on recovery tests than water with higher temperatures with the best protocol for CWI found to be with water temperature between 11-15 degrees and for a time of 11–15 minutes (Machado et al., 2015).
In summary, although WBC is currently a popular solution to recovery at the moment, not enough evidence exists on this recovery method and the high additional costs associated with it means it cannot be recommended as a suitable addition to the training routine. Alternatively, CWI offers a relatively cheap and easy way to accelerate recovery and reduce muscle soreness that is also evidence-based.
– Abaïdia, A., Lamblin, J., Delecroix, B., Leduc, C., McCall, A., & Nédélec, M. et al. (2017). Recovery From Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage: Cold-Water Immersion Versus Whole-Body Cryotherapy. International Journal Of Sports Physiology And Performance, 12(3), 402-409. doi: 10.1123/ijspp.2016-0186
– Costello, J., Baker, P., Minett, G., Bieuzen, F., Stewart, I., & Bleakley, C. (2016). Cochrane review: whole-body cryotherapy (extreme cold air exposure) for preventing and treating muscle soreness after exercise in adults. Journal Of Evidence-Based Medicine, 9(1), 43-44. doi: 10.1111/jebm.12187
– Holmes, M., & Willoughby, D. (2016). The Effectiveness of Whole Body Cryotherapy Compared to Cold Water Immersion: Implications for Sport and Exercise Recovery. International Journal Of Kinesiology And Sports Science, 4(4). doi: 10.7575/aiac.ijkss.v.4n.4p.32
– Leeder, J., Gissane, C., van Someren, K., Gregson, W., & Howatson, G. (2011). Cold water immersion and recovery from strenuous exercise: a meta-analysis. British Journal Of Sports Medicine, 46(4), 233-240. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2011-090061
– Lindsay, A., Carr, S., Cross, S., Petersen, C., Lewis, J., & Gieseg, S. (2017). The physiological response to cold-water immersion following a mixed martial arts training session. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, And Metabolism, 42(5), 529-536. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2016-0582
– Machado, A., Ferreira, P., Micheletti, J., de Almeida, A., Lemes, Í., & Vanderlei, F. et al. (2015). Can Water Temperature and Immersion Time Influence the Effect of Cold Water Immersion on Muscle Soreness? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Medicine, 46(4), 503-514. doi: 10.1007/s40279-015-0431-7