Speeding up recovery is crucial in athletes, especially with regards to their muscle tissue and joints. Athletes who tend to have poor recovery will likely find themselves subjected to more frequent injuries. Even uninjured, they will struggle to practice to an appropriate frequency and/or intensity, or with an appropriate level of skill or output. They will be training sub optimally in various ways.
Faster recovery can keep you on track, permitting you to follow your training schedule no matter how vigorous it might become. It will keep you at peak performance more often, allow you a greater degree of muscular and neuromuscular control, and will keep you safe as you become far less injury prone.
This doesn’t just apply to athletes, however. Injured non-athletes who recover faster will have their natural quality of life and physicality return a lot quicker, a lot more ably, and likely a lot more fully than those whose recovery is more prolonged.
Whilst there will be some genetic factors at work in determining how quickly somebody can recover, there are certain exogenous elements that need to be accounted for, that can be controlled and manipulated. Factors like rest and adequate sleep, an appropriate, balanced, healthy diet and a lack of lifestyle stress and further physical trauma will all play a part.
So, too, will the use of therapeutic treatments such as cold water immersion.
Cold water immersion
It may seem like a bizarre practice to sit in a bath of cold water in the pursuit of improved health and fitness. However, it is a trend; moreover, it is a trend on the rise, with a growing body of scientific literature back up its efficacy.
The practice has long been thought to improve physical and mental health and wellbeing. Research is new, as cold immersion therapy is a relatively new treatment in the mainstream. Healthcare professionals therefore don’t fully understand it. However, there is an increasingly large amount of scientific data, alongside plenty of testimony and anecdotal evidence, showing us exactly what cold immersion therapy can do.
What is cold water immersion?
Cold water immersion is a recovery method that involves submerging oneself- either wholly or partially- into cold water (usually around about 15 degrees C or so). For athletes, this is usually done immediately post-workout. However, practice at any time, even by non-athletes, has been shown to have several health benefits.
These benefits include:
Faster recovery times and enhanced tissue repair
Reduced inflammation in muscle and joints
Increased range of motion and flexibility
Immune system boost
Improved sleep patterns
Because of these benefits, cold water immersion can be perfect for athletes looking to enhance their recovery and maximise their potential. The accelerated muscle tissue and joint repair, reduced inflammation in muscles and joints, improved flexibility and decreased fatigue granted by cold water immersion in particular will go a long way to warding off DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness) and speeding up recovery.
Muscle and joint repair
Small tears, injuries, and strains are a natural by-product of maintaining an active life. By and large, they represent a healthy development: in the vast majority of cases, leading an active life, through athletic endeavour and/or lifestyle choices, will bring about positive health benefits. However, these kinds of injuries need to be mitigated as often and as much as possible.
Though sprains and tears can represent serious injuries, most of the time when we talk about these kinds of traumas we are talking about the kind of small-scale, disruptive symptoms commonly associated with DOMS.
DOMS tends to kick in between 24-48 hours after exercise, especially in untrained individuals or those training to a higher standard than normal. It is characterised by pain and tenderness in the muscles and joints, swelling and inflammation in the muscles and joints, and a feeling of lethargy and fatigue. This can be a deterrent to involving oneself in fitness and can be a significant factor in slowing progress.
It can promote accelerated recovery in muscle tissue and joints, as well as mitigating the fatigue and lethargy inherent to the post-workout phase of training.
How cold water immersion can offset DOMS and speed recovery
During the eccentric (muscle lengthening) phase of exercise, where the weight is lowered in the direction of gravity, muscle tissue undergoes controlled trauma. This is largely positive: it is where a great deal of adaptation is elicited and contributes to hypertrophy (muscle growth).
However, part of this process involves an inflammatory response similar to that of injury. Swelling occurs, as does pain and discomfort: this is thought to be a large contributing factor to symptoms of DOMS, as well as more serious injuries. Where we can, we want to mitigate this inflammation and speed up the body’s recovery from it.
There is increasing evidence that cold water immersion can be the answer to this problem, offsetting many of these symptoms and bringing about faster recovery. Cold water immersion increases circulation, purifying the blood by improving the lymphatic system’s efficacy, and transporting nutrients and oxygen to the body’s soft tissue. This will accelerate the healing process.
Cold treatments are almost universally applied to reduce or to prevent swelling, especially in injury. After all, anybody involved in fitness or first aid will know the acronym RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) as a treatment for common muscle and soft tissue traumas. Cold helps to reduce inflammation and elicit greater blood flow, leading to much faster recovery.
Though a simplified take on the subject, this lies at the heart of cold water immersion for accelerated recovery in muscle tissue and joints. Although most people who have been injured have reported benefitting from ice treatment, its mechanisms are still not fully understood. We do know that it is effective in reducing pain and inflammation.
Greater illumination may lie in the list of benefits we gave you above. DOMS and muscle and soft tissue injuries are characterised by inflammation and soreness, which cold water therapy reduces. All are also often characterised by a feeling of lethargy and fatigue. Cold water therapy has been shown to elevate mood and energy levels, whilst promoting better sleep. Anybody suffering with any muscle or joint injury will be fully aware of the lack of mobility in the affected areas. Cold immersion therapy has been shown to improve mobility.
For all of these reasons, cold water immersion can be a great tool for anybody looking to speed up their recovery from hard exercise or injury. As the science matures and more data come in, we may see yet more benefits to cold water immersion, more mechanisms elicited or improved that make the healing and recovery process more efficient.
For now, testimony and personal trial and error, alongside the small amount of data to hand, most often amply demonstrate its efficacy.