Cold water immersion therapy (e.g. jumping into an ice bath after your workout) has long been a popular method of improving recovery in athletes. But for years now, most of the science on this topic has been showing that this strategy isn’t very effective at improving most markers of recovery.
However, sometimes you can argue that a study uses participants that aren’t advanced enough athletes. Sure, cold water immersion might not work well for newbies, but maybe it works well for advanced athletes. In a recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, investigators sought to find out if Olympic level lifters would recover faster by using cold water immersion.
The seven lifters who participated were the German male Olympic weightlifting national team, a solid weightlifting crew of highly advanced athletes. A team that would be able to settle the issue of whether or not cold water immersion could help an athlete recover even though he frequently walks the line between full recovery and overtraining. With elite athletes like these, even a very small advantage can make a large difference.
The authors of the study did find some modest support in favor of testing this particular population. They discovered that cold water immersion might benefit weight bearing sports more than non-weight bearing sports, and that power (but not strength) and coordination might recover quicker by the use of this therapy. So the weightlifters might be just the right candidates for the task.
The athletes all completed two four-day phases of weightlifting, one in which they performed cold water immersion, and one where they didn’t. Whichever phase came first was randomized to reduce the influence of the training effect. Between the two phases was a ten day “wash-out” period, meaning they took some time off to make sure the first phase didn’t affect the second.
They did their normal workouts, which averaged 18-25 working sets, typically in the 3-5 rep range. The sets consisted of the exercises you’d expect: the competition lifts and their accessories like front squats, high pulls, and so on. Some of the exercise choices varied slightly from phase to phase, but the volume and intensity was the same.
The first day of each four day cycle consisted of two of the above mentioned sessions, as well as a performance test and some blood testing. Day two was just one session and more blood testing. Day three was another two sessions for a total of five. The fourth day was for collecting the final blood samples and repeating the performance test from day one. Subjective measures were also taken throughout the study.
Despite the potential benefits the researchers found, the cold water immersion therapy didn’t work. On average, the athletes didn’t experience a significant benefit from using it. In short, nothing really happened.
In a study like this, it’s impossible to eliminate two important variables. The first is inter-individual variability. Most of the athletes didn’t see any important difference between using the immersion therapy and not. However one athlete saw a significant improvement by using the immersion therapy, and two of them saw a loss in performance using it. This suggests at the possibility that some are benefited, and some are hindered by cold water immersion, but more research would be needed.
The second confounding variable is the placebo effect, as well as its opposite, the nocebo effect. Because there is no way to hide the treatment condition from the participants or authors of the study, there is no way to rule out that participant or author expectations influenced the results. These effects could influence the results and the individual variability seen in the study.
Even though there’s an outside chance that the seemingly ineffectual use of cold water immersion therapy is consistently the consequence of the nocebo effect, it would seem rational to skip this method of recovery. Either the effect is not real and this method is useless, or the effect is real and you’ll expect it not to work now that you’ve read this article.
1. Jan Schimpchen, et. al., “Can cold water immersion enhance recovery in elite Olympic weightlifters? An individualized perspective,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2016, DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001591.