This is a frequently asked questions by players and competitive athletes after they have completed prolonged and exhaustive exercise. Should you have the resources available in your club, this is a true dilemma. Both forms of cryotherapy, either whole body cryotherapy (BC) or cold water immersion (CWI) are used to speed up recovery. The suggested mechanism of potential beneficial effect of cryotherapy is associated with reduced inflammation, muscle damage and muscle soreness perception. Whether or not cryotherapy assists in a faster recovery of the functional capacity and sports performance is still debatable.
Whole body cryotherapy is gaining more popularity and this is due to the fact with this form of cryotherapy athletes can be exposed to far higher temperatures compared to CWI (around -85 °C vs. -10 °C). This level of air temperature during the whole BC is assumed to limit inflammation by reducing peripheral blood flow and, hence, speed up recovery after exhaustive exercise. However, there is very little evidence to support this assumption. Therefore, the effect of whole BC vs CWI is still under investigation.
In a recent study, published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, 31 trained but recreational runners completed a test marathon and following the run they were allocated in 3 groups in terms of the recovery means they used: the CWI group, that immersed lower limbs and iliac crest at water of 8 °C for 10 min; the whole BC group, that was exposed to two cold treatments in a cryotherapy chamber (3 min at − 85 °C followed by a 15-min warming period in ambient temperature + 4-min bout at − 85 °C); and the placebo group. Participants in the placebo group consumed 2 × 30 ml per day of a fruit flavored drink which did not contain any antioxidants or phytonutrients 5 days before the run, in the day of the run and for 2 days after. In this group, participants were simply asked to rest in ambient temperature for 10 min following completion of the marathon.
The results of this study showed that the implementation of a cryotherapy intervention resulted in at least unclear effects for every outcome measure when compared to the placebo intervention. As the authors state in their manuscript it seems that any beneficial effect of cryotheraphy after exercise is simply a product of the placebo effect.
These findings support the idea of planning the recovery strategy that best fits the beliefs and the needs of the individual athlete.
Wilson et al (2018). Recovery following a marathon: a comparison of cold water immersion, whole body cryotherapy and a placebo control. European Journal of Applied Physiology 118:153-163.