Recently there has been a lot of attention given to hydrotherapy as a means of improving performance. The idea behind hydrotherapy is that cold water, or contrasting cold and hot water, will improve blood flow after a workout and increase the rate of recovery. It goes without saying that better recovery is good for athletes, but recent research suggests the benefits of hydrotherapy seem less substantial than we might hope for.
One reason hydrotherapy might not be very effective is the amount of time most athletes can actually devote to it. Even the most accessible forms of hydrotherapy, such as contrasting showers right in your own home, can only be done for so long. Researchers performed a study published this month in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research to look at ice treatments as an alternative to less convenient methods.
Cryotherapy, or the use of cold as a treatment, might be more convenient for the average athlete to employ than hydrotherapy. Cryotherapy is a more feasible option for athletes who want to increase the amount of time the therapy is employed, since they can use bags of ice while doing other activities.
In this study, the participants used ice immediately following a workout, and again three times a day for the next 72 hours. Each therapy session lasted twenty minutes. That means it was more frequent than these athletes would probably be willing to take a very cold shower. Ten cold showers in three days is pretty oppressive.
Not only that, but this treatment method was also more localized than hydrotherapy. In this case, the participants applied the cold directly to their hamstrings. A shower might make it difficult to target any specific area besides perhaps the traps and neck.
The participants did a hamstring workout designed to make the muscles sore and damaged from exercise. Then they were tested for strength, soreness, flexibility, and blood markers for muscle damage once per day for the 72 hours after the workout. This data was compared to the same tests done before the workout, as well as against a control group that used no ice at all.
Unfortunately, the results were similar to that of the recent hydrotherapy studies. The only significant difference between athletes who iced and those who didn’t was pain. In other words, ice made the athletes less sore in time, but didn’t change the performance factors at all. While this benefit is valuable, it’s not really what most of us would hope for – a simple way to enhance performance. There was a small but insignificant improvement in the resting flexibility of the hamstrings and to the biochemical factors studied in the blood. Unfortunately, these possible trends weren’t substantial enough to be statistically relevant.
As noted by the authors, many studies dealing with this topic have small sample sizes, and sometimes weak statistical correlations. Some of the trends noted in this study may be more conclusive in a bigger study. It seems that if we want every edge possible – and most of us do – ice might be a good practice until we have stronger evidence. The worst thing that can happen is you won’t be as sore.
1. Elizabeth Oakley, et. al., “The Effects of Multiple Daily Applications of Ice to the Hamstrings on Biochemical Measures, Signs, and Symptoms Associated With Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(10), 2013.
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