Recent research indicates that "cold water immersion is no more effective than active recovery for minimizing the inflammatory and stress responses in muscle after resistance exercise"
But what does this really mean? Does that mean anyone who has been doing this type of treatment has been wasting there time?
Sports teams and athletes have used cold water immersion therapy as a form of recovery for many years. The thought was that cold water immersion may have created long-term adaptive responses to resistance exercise by modulating inflammation and cellular stress. In essence the thought was that cold water immersion would allow the body to adapt to the effects of exercise quicker by changing the way body creates and responds to inflammation.
In the above 2016 research study, it was found that cold water immersion is no more effective than active recovery for minimizing the inflammatory and stress responses in muscle after resistance exercise. The limitation of this study though is that they didn't compare this to a control group so we are unable to determine if both groups had an overall effect on inflammation or not.
If there is no difference between active recovery and cold water immersion, why do people still use it?
Whilst it appears that cold water immersion doesn't significantly change the inflammatory response in the body, we have found previously that cold water immersion consistently improves perceptions of fatigue and muscle soreness and enhances recovery of muscle function/performance following exercise. It also reduces clinical signs of inflammation such as limb swelling/oedema after exercise.
However it is also known that reducing inflammation in muscle after injury often impedes muscle repair and can slow the recovery process down.
Therefore in the long term, regular cold water immersion appears to be detrimental for developing muscle strength and hypertrophy.
Take home message:
- There is no difference between cold water immersion and active recovery in terms of inflammatory response after exercise.
- Cold water immersion can improve perception of fatigue and muscle soreness
- Cold water immersion can improve swelling and muscle function after exercise
- Regular use of cold water immersion can be inhibit and be detrimental to developing muscle strength and hypertrophy