With professional sport such a big business in this day and age, sportspeople and teams are going to greater lengths to ensure that their bodies are as fit as possible. A few years ago, sports recovery would be an occasionally mentioned term; now it is an extremely common one – sport can have a massive effect on the body and athletes look for any way to enable their body to recover. Recently, a recovery technique known as cryotherapy has made headlines as many believe it to be one of the best ways to help your body to recover from its exertions.

Why use cryotherapy in sport?

A very elementary use of cryotherapy can be used to illustrate why cryotherapy can be useful in sports recovery. When one bangs their head, what is the first thing one does? They get an icepack or perhaps a bag of frozen peas and apply this to the area affected by the bang. Crudely put, this is cryotherapy.
Many will know how beneficial it is to apply something cold to a bump can be, and the same applies to the bumps, bruises and muscular issues caused by intense activity in a sporting context.

Welsh rugby team began using cryotherapy in the run-up to the 2011 Rugby World Cup in order to aid their recovery following training sessions. Rather than just applying an icepack to sore areas of their bodies, the Welsh team used whole-body cryotherapy (WBC) – players would enter a cryotherapy chamber and be subjected to temperatures of -166°F (-100 °C) in order to provide them with recovery all over their bodies.

Chambers of this kind that allow for whole body cryotherapy are increasing in popularity – a company called CryoClinics are responsible for installing the first whole body cryotherapy pod in a medical facility.

How does it benefit athletes?

Numerous scientific tests have been carried out to establish the benefits of cryotherapy to athletes. One study focussing on trial runners reported that, “A unique session of whole-body cryotherapy performed immediately after exercise enhanced muscular recovery by restricting the inflammatory process.”

Another test undertaken by the University of Alicante and published in their Journal of Human Sport and Exercise found that, “post-exercise cryotherapy resulted in…greater preservation of isometric strength endurance when compared to the control condition”.

One study looked at recovery between two groups, one that was exposed to cryotherapy during recovery and one that was not. The results found that the group receiving cryotherapy “had significant improvements in all areas compared to the group that did not receive the cold therapy”

Following their initial use of cryotherapy, the Welsh Rugby Union have been using it frequently; even acquiring their own portable cryotherapy chamber in Cardiff. Welsh captain Sam Warburton has indicated that he believes that it allows players to train an extra day per week, which in the world of sport is a whole lot of extra training and the result is a far fitter athlete.

It was notable at the 2011 Rugby World Cup that Wales were significantly fitter than many of the other sides competing and many have put this down to the cryotherapy treatment that allowed them to train harder, for longer and more often.

The WRU also use cryotherapy to specifically target certain injuries – Sam Warburton was able to play in the 2012 Grand Slam game in Cardiff after undergoing extensive cryotherapy treatment in an attempt to recover from medial ligament damage.

The benefits of cryotherapy can be applied across a variety of medical conditions as an adjunct to physiotherapy treatments or in the case of sports performance allowing quicker recovery from training. Which in competitive sports can make a huge difference.