Recovering quickly from exercise with minimal soreness and fatigue is something that every athlete desires to give them an opportunity to improve their performance, but is it possible with the use of Whole Body Cryotherapy (WBC)?
Recovery strategies are often used with the intention of preventing or minimising muscle soreness after exercise. Therefore, WBC is becoming more popular amongst athletes and high performance coaches, who are currently advocating it as an effective intervention to reduce muscle soreness after exercise.
Ultimately the aim of having less muscle soreness, athletes can perform with better mobility, strength, and range of motion which in turn allows them to be able to produce better performances.
So lets look at the research and see what conclusions we can draw from WBC.
WBC entails a single exposure to extremely cold dry air (nitrogen) which is safely delivered at -100 to -150 °C in a specifically designed chamber for two to three minutes.
Studies have looked at the effects of a WBC using the 3 min at -110°C process on acute recovery and key variables of endurance performance during high-intensity intermittent exercise. They found that WBC improved athletes’ acute recovery during high-intensity intermittent exercise in thermoneutral conditions (1). Researchers from this study believe that these improvements might be induced by enhanced oxygenation of the working muscles, as well as a reduction in cardiovascular strain and increased work economy at submaximal intensities. Another research looked at a systematic search to investigate the effects of WBC, exposure to temperatures between -110 to -190°C on markers of recovery after exercise in healthy, physically active subjects. Again, these results were positive and found that muscle pain was reduced in 80% of studies following WBC (1) .
Two applied studies found recovery of athletic capacity and performance with WBC improved, variables of this nature were also improved in 71% of studies using controlled exercise (2). Further benefits of WBC treatment included reduction of systemic inflammation and lower concentrations of markers for muscle cell damage. These results suggest that WBC may improve recovery from muscle damage, with multiple exposures more consistently exhibiting improvements in recovery from pain, loss of muscle function, and markers of inflammation and damage. The diversity in muscle damage protocols, exposure timing with regards to exercise, as well as temperatures, duration, and frequencies of exposure, make specific recommendations preliminary at present (2).
Other research has investigated the effects of using WBC to see if there would be any improvement of isokinetic muscle strength in athletes and if WBC would have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties? It was discovered that by athletes undertaking a WBC session at -110°C for 3 minutes after resistance training, induced a positive and likely significant improvement of isokinetic muscle strength (3), along with less oxidative stress and inflammation (4). Furthermore, this study obtained results to support the claim that resistance training combined with cold exposure, modified muscle strength through modulation of myostatin and IL-15 concentrations (3).
Not only is all this evidence suggesting the positives of WBC as being beneficial for physical performance but there is a strong case to present to athletes on the other benefits of WBC. These benefits include improvement in mental health and better sleep, that athletes may have not benefited from using other cold modalities such as ice baths.
In regards to better mental health, it was found that immediately after WBC, apart from the well-known analgesic effect, there were changes in an athletes mental state, such as improvement of mood, deep relaxation, freshening up, consolation, euphoria, which researchers found lasted for several hours to several days after ending the cycle of cryotherapy (5).
Other studies have made similar claims stating that WBC has a significant influence on improving the well-being and mood (in terms of both psychological and somatic aspects) and subsequently leads to an enhancement in better quality of life. Furthermore, the worse the mental state of the person prior to WBC, the more positive its effect on mental wellbeing was recorded (6).
With a better sense of mental wellbeing and a reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression, better sleep was recorded, especially in athletes that partook in afternoon/evening exercise or training. Many athletes reported a disturbance in sleep patterns after afternoon/evening exercise or training which ultimately can hinder the recovery process. A study that recorded night movements on these athletes found that there was considerably less movement and the subjective sleep quality was significantly better following WBC (7), which may be due to greater pain relief and improved parasympathetic nervous activity during the estimated slow-wave sleep period.
Although there is more research needed on the effects of WBC on athletic performance, the current research is exhibiting a good case for athletes to add this to their recovery tool kit. From what we have found through current research and studies, is that there are many benefits to using cryotherapy as a holistic tool for athletes to better perform both physically and mentally.
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(1) Krüger M, de Mareés M, Dittmar KH, Sperlich B, Mester J. Whole-body cryotherapy's enhancement of acute recovery of running performance in well-trained athletes. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2015 Jul;10(5):605-12. doi: 10.1123/ijspp.2014-0392. Epub 2015 Jan 5. PMID: 25561577.
(2) Rose C, Edwards KM, Siegler J, Graham K, Caillaud C. Whole-body Cryotherapy as a Recovery Technique after Exercise: A Review of the Literature. Int J Sports Med. 2017 Dec;38(14):1049-1060. doi: 10.1055/s-0043-114861. Epub 2017 Nov 21. PMID: 29161748.
(3) Jaworska J, Rodziewicz-Flis E, Kortas J, Kozłowska M, Micielska K, Babińska A, Laskowski R, Lombardi G, Ziemann E. Short-Term Resistance Training Supported by Whole-Body Cryostimulation Induced a Decrease in Myostatin Concentration and an Increase in Isokinetic Muscle Strength. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Jul 30;17(15):5496. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17155496. PMID: 32751455; PMCID: PMC7432449.
(4) Mila-Kierzenkowska C, Jurecka A, Woźniak A, Szpinda M, Augustyńska B, Woźniak B. The effect of submaximal exercise preceded by single whole-body cryotherapy on the markers of oxidative stress and inflammation in blood of volleyball players. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2013;2013:409567. doi: 10.1155/2013/409567. Epub 2013 Dec 31. PMID: 24489985; PMCID: PMC3893756.
(5) Rymaszewska J, Biały D, Zagrobelny Z, Kiejna A. [The influence of whole body cryotherapy on mental health] Psychiatr Pol. 2000 Jul-Aug;34(4) 649-653. PMID: 11059263.
(6) Joanna Szczepańska-Gieracha, Paulina Borsuk, Malwina Pawik & Joanna Rymaszewska (2014) Mental state and quality of life after 10 session whole-body cryotherapy, Psychology, Health & Medicine, 19:1, 40-46, DOI: 10.1080/13548506.2013.780130
(7) Wafa Douzi, Olivier Dupuy, Maxence Tanneau, Geoffroy Boucard, Romain Bouzigon & Benoit Dugué (2019) 3-min whole body cryotherapy/cryostimulation after training in the evening improves sleep quality in physically active men, European Journal of Sport Science, 19:6, 860-867, DOI: 10.1080/17461391.2018.1551937