The Big Chill

As I sit writing, fresh snowfall is rapidly turning the hills white again and the first week of April seems to be carrying on where March left off! Like many areas of Northern Europe and the US, the start of 2018 in northern England has seen some brutally cold and snowy weather, and proper spring weather still seems a long way off.

Despite the inclement weather however, the competitive season for endurance athletes such as triathletes, runners and cyclists is fast approaching. With that in mind, we make no apologies for the topic of this week’s newsletter, which looks at cold therapy (sometimes known as ‘cryotherapy’) for improving recovery and performance!

Cold therapy, used since ancient times to combat the pain, swelling, and stiffness from intense activity, remains the cornerstone of training room treatment modalities. Methods include cold-water immersion (CWI), ice massage, and ice packs. In the late 1970s, the Japanese introduced a new type of whole-body cold application using cooled air. Originally designed for use with arthritic patients, Polish developers took the idea, improved the technology, and developed protocols for healthy individuals. Two delivery methods exist for this type of cryotherapy (also called cryostimulation): partial-body cryotherapy (PBC) and whole-body cryotherapy (WBC).

Partial and whole-body cryotherapy

In PBC, an individual steps into a cylindrical chamber wearing booties and a bathing suit, with their head and hands sticking out of the top of the chamber. If hands remain in the chamber, they must be covered. Liquid nitrogen provides the cooling vapour which surrounds the subject in the chamber. Sensors measure the temperature at the nitrogen outlet and usually report it between -110C and -140C. As for the circulating nitrogen, the heaviness of the very cold vapour means most of it remains toward the bottom of the compartment.

Manufacturers report no adverse effects from this level of nitrogen inhalation. Despite needing a tank of liquid nitrogen, PBC units are portable, and therefore can be utilised at sporting venues without a permanent installation. Cryo-spas in the United States often refer to this type of treatment as WBC. However, WBC differs in the methodology of cold air delivery.

The alternative method of cooling, known as WBC, consists of a main chamber and one or more antechambers. To cool the air in the rooms, refrigerants, such as liquid nitrogen, flow through pipes located inside the walls, or compressor units act as super air conditioners. The subjects never come in direct contact with the cooling agent. The rooms hold two or more people who also wear minimal clothing but must don coverings to feet, hands, mouth/nose, and ears. The antechambers allow acclimatisation to the cold and individuals spend at least 30 seconds in the outer room (usually cooled to -60C) before entering the main compartment where the air temperature drops to -110C to -140C for two to four minutes.

Cool customer

With the cost to consumers at anywhere from £35.00 to £100.00 per cryotherapy session, a key question most athletes will want answering is whether WBC or PBC are superior to other traditional methods of cooling? In particular, how much more effective are these high-tech, super-cool (no pun intended) methods of recovery than simple cold-water immersion – which involves nothing more than sitting in a cold bath of water at 8-10C for ten minutes?

These are the questions answered by sports physiologist Alicia Filley in her  Peak Performance article on cryotherapy. As well as explaining the theory behind the practice of cryotherapy, Alicia has looked at a number of recent studies on the use of cryotherapy and the rate of recovery in athletes including cyclists, marathon runners and recreational athletes. In these studies, researchers compared the effectiveness of PBC and WBC to each other, and to (the much cheaper option of) cold-water immersion.

The results are surprising to say the least and make essential reading for all athletes seeking maximum recovery after hard training or competition. Needless to say, Alicia also provides practical guidelines for athletes seeking maximum cryotherapy benefits without breaking the bank. Click on the link below to read Alicia’s article in full.

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