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Exposure to extreme cold temperatures does not aid muscle recovery: study

So-called whole-body cryotheraphy, used by the likes of US sprinter Justin Gatlin, is not an effective treatment for muscle recovery, a Limerick University study has found.

US sprinter Justin Gatlin points to a frostbite scar on his leg during a recent interview
US sprinter Justin Gatlin points to a frostbite scar on his leg during a recent interview
Image: David J. Phillip/AP/Press Association Images

SCIENTISTS AT LIMERICK University have said there is no benefit for athletes who immerse themselves in extreme temperatures as a way of supposedly aiding muscle recovery.

Researchers from the Department of Physical Education and Sports Sciences at the University of Limerick (UL) have published a paper – which they say is the first – exploring the effects of what’s known as whole-body cryotherapy (WBC) which an increasing number of athletes undertake after sporting exertions.

In some cases medical patients also use the therapy for various clinical and rehabilitative reasons.

It had been said that those who repeatedly exposed themselves to cold temperatures felt the benefit of having less sore muscles than those who didn’t.

A 2007 study by scientists at Loughborough University in the UK found that groups of  young men who ran for 90 minutes, and then soaked in 10 degree celsius baths for ten minutes had less sore muscles than those who didn’t undertake the practice.

Whole-body cryotherapy involves using so-called cryochambers where users must strip to shorts or a bathing suit, remove all jewellery and don several pairs of gloves, a face mask, a woolly headband and dry socks before entering a chamber where the temperature is minus 110 degrees celsius.

This is “colder than any temperature ever experienced or recorded on earth,” according to doctoral student and the UL paper’s lead author Joseph Costello.

It is increasingly being used by some leading athletes according to the New York Times. This includes US sprinter Justin Gatlin who attracted much attention when he showed up for the recent World Championships with frostbite scars on his legs as a result of WBC.

However the researchers at UL found that administering WBC 24-hours after strenuous exercise is “is ineffective in alleviating muscle soreness or enhancing muscle force recovery,” according to Costello.

“However, these results also indicate that WBC does not increase the risk of injury, as functional movement is maintained following exposure,” he added.

Whilst the practice of WBC appears to have been discredited by this study, the researchers indicated there was no apparent problem with cold/ice baths.

Professor Alan Donnelly, co-author of the report added: ”Cryotherapy, in the form of cold water immersion and ice packs, has been used for decades as a post-exercise recovery strategy in a variety of sports.

“However, the application of whole-body cryotherapy has recently attracted much attention, with one athlete in particular, Justin Gatlin, who recently experiencing frostbite following the treatment.

“This study shows that WBC is not an effective treatment for muscle recovery.”

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Hugh O'Connell

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