Some athletes are taking “cold” to a whole new level with the use of whole-body cryotherapy chambers, where the temperature is lowered to minus 166 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 110 Celsius). It dwarfs common forms of cryotherapy–for example, placing an ice pack on a bruise– that are commonly used in sports as well as everyday life.
Elite and recreational athletes alike brave these extreme temperatures, which are colder than any ever recorded on Earth, in hopes of speedy recoveries after grueling workouts. Frostbite is a real threat in these freezing chambers, and athletes must wear a hat, gloves, a face mask, and socks during the two to three-minute immersion. All clothing must be completely dry, otherwise it will immediately freeze to the body.
The New York Times analyzes cryotherapy to find out whether or not this extreme procedure is actually beneficial to athletes. The results are surprisingly inconclusive:
“A 2007 study of ice baths found that young men who completed a punishing 90-minute shuttle run and then eased themselves into a frigid bathtub (with the water cooled to 50 degrees Fahrenheit) for 10 minutes reported feeling markedly less sore a few days later than a control group who did not soak. But ice baths did not lower the runners’ level of creatine kinase, often considered a hallmark of muscle damage. They felt better, but their muscles were almost as damaged as if they hadn’t soaked.”
However, another study that specifically addresses cryotherapy chambers did find that there were some benefits to low-temperature exposure once a day for several days after a strenuous workout. This study suggests that athletes could potentially “save two to three days” of recovery before returning to an intense training schedule.
While cryotherapy may be beneficial to athletes, it also comes with a very high risk of frostbite and loss of blood circulation. Those who choose to partake in this frigid exercise must be completely dry, wave their arms and move their legs constantly while they are in the chamber, and not remain in the freezing temperatures for more than a few minutes.
As a former college athlete and hater of the cold, it’s surprising to me that anyone would voluntarily subject themselves to such extreme temperatures, even to improve athletic performance. But the popularity of cryotherapy chambers is on the rise, and one targeted to recreational athletes recently opened in Northern California. Be on the lookout for a freezing chamber at a gym near you.
What do you think of this strange new trend?
Photo from Brighton photographer via flickr