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Saunas and Icebaths

What, why, and “oh my word when can I get out..”

by My Finish Line


Not many of us reading this will have a cryotherapy chamber and liquid nitrogen canisters lying around the house that we use as a modality of recovery as soon as we get home. Elite athletes have them in their training bases, and along with altitude chambers and anti-gravity treadmills happily spend hundreds of thousands of pounds and dollars in an arms-race to squeeze every once out of their training. However, ice baths (even if this counts filling up the bath at home with cold water and ice) and saunas are increasingly being used by the casual and elite athlete as a form of, what is now, and accepted ‘best practice’.

But is it?

The science

If we use the term ‘cryotherapy’ to include everything from nitrogen-induced freeze chambers to tin baths full of cold water, all the following statements have crossed the desk of research in the last decade. Cryotherapy speeds up recovery. Cryotherapy delays the process of recovery. Cryotherapy diminishes the returns you may actually get from training. Cryotherapy is a dangerous concept because it masks potential muscle tears and makes you feel superhuman when you are in fact tired and fatigued.

Of all these, some have been proven, others debated; however the practice of using cold as a means of recovery prevails. Some heavyweight researchers such as Angie Calder from the Australian Institute of Sport have been advocates, and yet further down the line, sceptics of the supposed benefits as new information and data come to light with more research. The ability to pivot opinion based on new data is the sign of superb integrity and quality as a scientist; but what can we truly gather as benefits (let’s allow ourselves the luxury of ignoring any negatives) from hot and cold immersion?

By-product

One interesting fact is this – it looks as if one interesting by product of putting the body through the stresses of sitting in an ice bath (or indeed, a sauna) is the acclimatisation of stress hormones in the body. This may sound like a bad thing. It isn’t. One stress hormone (cortisol) is actually produced by the body when exercising, and in fact the body’s response to it producing this hormone and adapting is what chiefly results in gains through training. What that means is one thing we can say with almost certainly is this – the mental and physical rigour of sitting through the acute discomfort of an ice bath or the searing heat of a sauna improves our performance potential because it is a replication of learning how to cope with, and adapt to stress. From a psychological standpoint we could also argue that it takes the same mental toughness to see to the end of the 10min hell in the freezing bath as it does to finish the end of a long run or squeeze out that last rep.

The increase in body temperature upon leaving an ice bath (and the decrease thereof in leaving a sauna) also may have positive effects regarding the release of growth hormones and testosterone in the body – again, things that are to be given significant high-fives and which would be intensely welcomed if more research was done in this area to prove this if any university professors happen to be reading.

Either way, as more research enters the performance world, any trickle-down effects into the training regimes of all of us could be very useful. As a cut-out and keep guide however as far as should we try ice baths as far as improving recovery and performance? The answer is probably, maybe, almost certainly yes.