Recovery is a difficult topic to research. Often times, there are conflicting studies and conclusions, because so much of the recovery process is measured anecdotally. So what’s one to do? For one, start with defining the terms. Next, read the methods of the study to see if they are actually addressing the topic at hand. From there, we can get a better picture of truth outside of the spectrum of opinion.
So what is recovery? Is it at the cellular level? Is it in reference to perceived soreness or recovery of specific and relevant range of motion? Is it recovery from an injury? Is it recovering strength? For this blog we will define recovery as being at the cellular level, referencing perceived soreness decreases and strength recovery.Relevant range of motion is a tricky topic to try to throw in here because of all the factors and mechanisms that could lead to lost mobility and the reacquisition thereof. It would be irresponsible to reduce that topic to whether or not cold-water immersion aids recovery of that nature. Same goes for recovering from injuries.
Finding Applicable Studies
While researching this topic, you will find numerous studies pointing in all different directions, most of which deal with recovery from highly metabolic activities like running or playing soccer. We acknowledge these, but for our purposes, we want to look specifically at resistance training. With how much traction cold-water immersion has had for decades and with the more recent surge of cryotherapy, one would think resources would be plentiful on this topic. This is simply not the case. Very few research papers and studies get into the specifics of recovery, especially as it relates to resistance training. I was able to find some, however, and they are cited throughout this blog.
Effects on Perceived Muscle Soreness
Muscle soreness is a common, yet not always a reliable, indicator of recovery. However, the effects of cold-water immersion therapy are pretty clear. Pretty much every study ever done on this topic has shown that cold-water immersion significantly aids in a reduction of muscle soreness. However, there are very few studies that even attempt to find out why this is the case. There needs to be more research on this topic, but I believe there hasn’t been because we already have a decent hypothesis on this. The cold has the ability to numb the area and provides relief of pain. In-short, if you only care about reducing soreness, then cold-water immersion or cryotherapy is definitely a viable option for you.
Muscle Recovery at the Cellular Level
This topic specifically lacks applicable studies to indicate viability. However, a 2016 study by Peake, et al. does a pretty good job of attacking this. They used single-leg resistance strength training in three groups. One performed cold-immersion, another group performed active recovery and the third group used a passive (sedentary) recovery. The study controlled nutrition and even bathing schedules to eliminate the heat from the showers and baths from affecting the results. They monitored the results using muscle biopsies and blood work. Without getting into the entire study that you can read yourself, the results were not necessarily what you might expect.
Cold-immersion therapy showed no significant (statistically, not my determination) difference in muscle recovery when compared to active recovery. One could stop there and make a claim that active recovery would be superior because of its ability to be broadly applied in a group setting. It also comes with zero monetary cost. Not so fast. The study also showed that the benefits of either method were minimal when compared to the passive or sedentary group. So now what? Is this a referendum on all recovery methods? Well, not exactly. Methods are important.
The active recovery method was pedaling on a stationary bike, so all we see here is that, for recovery purposes, hopping on the bike for a warm-down seems to be a waste of time. It is not an indicator of the effectiveness of other active recovery modalities. Each would need to be studied or observed independently. In fact, I read another study that showed tremendous backing for active recovery over static or passive recovery. The problem is that they do not detail what the active method consisted of. My opinion is that it more than likely depends on the method itself.
It is important to note there are many studies that seem to indicate real benefits with cold-immersion. However, they don’t really apply very well to strength training. The studies base the findings on activities with a high metabolic stress and moderate mechanical stress. When it comes to strength training, we typically see a reduced metabolic stress with a heightened mechanical stress. That is an important difference. In the end, this study shows that the biological indicators at the cellular level do not support cold-immersion being used as a primary recovery method.
**Note: The study also references a 2003 study by Roberts, et al. that seemed to show a loss of muscle mass and force production when cold-emersion was implemented post-workout over a 3-month period. That is significant.**
This is where people could easily get lost. The studies seem to show contradictions rampant, but when observed more closely, there seems to be more of a bell curve. One study by Pfeiffer, et al. seemed to show drastic decreases in strength when using cold-immersion methods. However, the method to determine this was repeating high-intensity exercise with a quick turnaround (within an hour). As I stated before, there is a 2003 study by Roberts, et al. that indicates a loss of strength over a 3-month period of using cold-immersion in comparison to other recovery methods.
But let’s slow down a bit. There are also studies that seem to indicate strength recovery increases over a three day period in comparison to other methods. Some point to this as a proof-positive for cold-water immersion. Others point to it as misleading. I tend to fall into the latter camp. We know cold-water immersion reduces perceived soreness. That three day period seems to be in a typical soreness window, so a study taking place in that window seems to exploit that effect. While it is important to those looking for a quick turnaround, it also could be detrimental. This is only my opinion.
As an example, we know that to cause actual changes in soft tissue by stretching takes at least 2 minutes of constant stretching. However, we see increases in joint range after 30 seconds, at times. This is because we have affected the stretch tolerance of the muscle. This can give an appearance of increased soft tissue extensibility, but it is misleading. In the same way, because of decreased soreness, we should be able to tolerate more load than while experiencing soreness. Some need that from time to time, but I am in the business of developing long-term athletes. I don’t really care too much about a false two or three days of perceived recovery. I really want to see more studies attacking this topic, but until then, I can only go on this. For these reasons, it is my current opinion (which could change), that not only is cold-immersion not beneficial for strength recovery, but it can be detrimental in the long-run.
Please make your own determinations. Don’t blindly listen to what I’m saying, but these are the conclusions that I’ve come to with the current information available. There are simply not enough studies out there on this topic. The ones that are out there, when looked at as a whole, do not seem to support to the use of cold-immersion as an efficient or effective recovery method post-workout. This is especially true when it comes at a monetary cost to you. Alternatively, active recovery is going to depend on the specific method.
Thibaut Méline, Timothée Watier, Anthony MJ Sanchez, Cold water immersion after exercise: recent data and perspectives on “kaumatherapy”,The Journal of Physiology, 2017, 595, 9, 2783
Gillian White, Jessica E. Caterini, Cold water immersion mechanisms for recovery following exercise: cellular stress and inflammation require closer examination, The Journal of Physiology, 2017, 595, 3, 631
Chris Mawhinney, Helen Jones, David A. Low, Daniel J. Green, Glyn Howatson, Warren Gregson, Influence of cold-water immersion on limb blood flow after resistance exercise, European Journal of Sport Science, 2017, 17, 5, 519
R. Allan, C. Mawhinney, Is the ice bath finally melting? Cold water immersion is no greater than active recovery upon local and systemic inflammatory cellular stress in humans, The Journal of Physiology, 2017, 595, 6, 1857
Angus Lindsay, Sam Carr, Sean Cross, Carl Petersen, John G. Lewis, Steven P. Gieseg, The physiological response to cold-water immersion following a mixed martial arts training session, Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 2017, 42, 5, 529
Pearce, et al. Journal of Physiology. Volume 595, Issue 31 February 2017 Pages 695–711
Jeremiah J. Peifferet al. Journal of Sports Sciences, Published online: 21 Aug 2009