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Benefits of ice baths and cryotherapy

Posted 05 April 2012

In the second of a series of articles Karen Doyle, a Physical Therapist at Dublin’s Maple Clinic who is no stranger to working with international cyclists, examines how ice baths and cyrochambers can aid muscle recovery and increase power ouput.

By Karen Doyle

Physical Therapist

In the first of this series of articles ( I described how intensive exercise can have a significant impact on sporting performance, reducing muscle function by up to 20% over several days post exercise. It also causes muscles soreness, reduced flexibility and a reduction in strength and power. 

Immersing the body in a bath of cold water (cold water immersion) is a frequently used and popular way of recovery post exercise and as a result there has been a lot of scientific research into this area as an aide to improving recovery rates.

A recent review of cold water immersion (CWI) research by the British Journal of Sports and Exercise Medicine found that CWI has been found to be effective at reducing the rates of muscle soreness 24 and 48 hours after high intensity exercise for 60% of those taking part in the studies. The average decrease in the perception of soreness was 16%.

They found that cold water immersions was not effective at recovering muscles strength post exercise but it more effective in recovery of muscle power compared to doing nothing at all. In another study on 12 cyclists who performed five consecutive days of exercise including time trials and sprints, those who underwent CWI after each session had a higher average power output across the 5 days than those undergoing hot baths or no recovery therapy.

The exact mechanism in how CWI works is not known. Immersing the body in cold water (e.g. 10 minutes at 10C or 15mins at 15C) is thought to reduce blood flow in the muscle and surrounding tissue reducing inflammation caused by the strenuous exercise. This would help to reduce swelling which eases the perception of soreness. The reduction in muscle temperature may also slow down the effect of enzymes activated when muscle damage occurs.

If doing CWI at home for legs post cycling wear a warm top and hat to keep the upper body warm while immersing the legs. CWI may not be suitable for diabetics or those with circulatory problems who are strongly advised to consult with a doctor before doing it. Contrast water therapy is another water based therapy that has been found to be effective as a recovery strategy. This involves immersion for 1 minute in cold water (15C), followed by 1 minute in 38C water and each cycle is repeated 14 times. Harder to do at home unless you have two baths!


Cryotherapy was front page news when Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy were sent to Poland for cyrotherapy after injury in 2005. The therapy consists of exposure to very cold air that is maintained at -110°C to -140°C in special temperature-controlled cryochambers, generally for two minutes. Skin temperature can drop to 5-12°.

The chyrotherapy process involves the client entering the cryotherapy unit, which consists of two chambers of dry cold air, one at -60 and the other at -100C. To prevent frostbite the user wears a hat, gloves, swimming trunks and socks inside the chamber. 

The area of research on cyrochambers in sport is new and to date there has been little evidence to show that they work for muscle recovery and injuries. In 2011 University of Limerick published a review of the scientific evidence carried out by numerous research centers on chyrochambers and concluded that while some athletes may report less muscle soreness after using the chamber it does not speed up the rate of repair of muscle damage. 

Despite the lack of evidence, the use of chyrochambers is growing in sport with many sports people praising it. On the Tour De France in 2010 Nicolas Roche used ice baths as a recovery method, but in 2011 cyrochambers from their sponsor were used. He describes the process in his blog: “Every morning and evening I strip down to my boxers, socks, and a pair of gloves and step into the portable chamber for three minutes. It's a bit tingly to begin with but with the temperature inside set at minus 150C , the teeth soon start to chatter and the shivers kick in. By the time it's over, it's bloody freezing”. 

Karen Doyle
Physical Therapist

Karen Doyle is a Physical Therapist based in private practice in Booterstown, Co. Dublin. She works with various National Cycling Squads attending track and world road cup competitions.

She can be contacted through:


Costello J, Algar L, Donnelly A. Effects of Whole-body Cyrotherapy (-110°C) on Proprioception and Indices of Muscle Damage. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports 2011

Leeder J, Gissane C, Van Someren K, Gregson W, Howatson G. Cold Water Immersion and Recovery from Strenuous Exercise: a meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2012 46: 233-240 

Vaile J, Halson S, Gill N, Dawson B. Effect of Hydrotherapy on the Signs and Symptoms of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. European Journal of Applied Physiology 2008 102:477-455

Vaile J, Halson S, Gill N, Dawson B. Effect of Hydrotherapy on Recovery from Fatigue. International Journal of Sports Medicine 2008 29:539-544

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