A Complete Guide to Cryotherapy Benefits for Athletes

Cryotherapy Benefits and Science for Athletes

Cryotherapy provides a cascade of benefits that affects a broad range of biological functions in your body. Naturally, these benefits have caught the attention of the fitness community, professional athletes, and elite trainers worldwide. From Usain Bolt to Cristiano Ronaldo and Steph Curry, top-level athletes have found ways to gain an edge through cryotherapy’s unique form of cold exposure therapy.

And now that it’s become more accessible, cryotherapy has become a growing modality for improving workout recovery, cognitive function, and athletic performance for athletes and health enthusiasts of all levels.

But how does cryotherapy actually work? And are there specific kinds of sports and exercise that cold exposure therapy benefits most? Are there times where it should be avoided?

This article covers everything you need to know about cryotherapy, how it works, its benefits, key research findings, and the tips and tools for successfully incorporating it into your own recovery protocols. 

What Is Cryotherapy?

Whole-Body Cryotherapy is a form of cold therapy that exposes the entire body to extreme cold temperatures ranging from -166 and -222 degrees Fahrenheit for short durations of time.

How Does Cold Exposure Therapy Work?

Cold exposure therapy modalities like ice baths, cold showers, and cryotherapy, all benefit the body through a process called hormesis. 

Hormesis is the positive adaptive response from brief exposure to stressors that would otherwise cause damage to your body. Exercise, saunas, fasting, and cold exposure are all examples of short and controlled exposures to stress that benefit your body. But in any of those four examples, your body also recognizes that extended exposure to the stressor could permanently damage the body. If you fast for too long, you will starve. If you spent too much time in 180-degree temperatures, you would get heatstroke. But subjecting yourself to these forms of stress in small doses triggers positive and restorative responses from your body.

Cold exposure creates a unique hormetic response in your body, including vasoconstriction, production of cold shock proteins, activating the sympathetic nervous system, and releasing a cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and dopamine.

So any time you step into a cryo-chamber or hop into an ice bath, your body responds to this external stressor naturally. And it is this controlled exposure that provides the short and long-term benefits from your body naturally.

15 Cryotherapy Benefits:

Cryotherapy has a broad cascade of its own unique benefits and shares many of them with traditional cold-exposure therapy like ice baths and cold showers.

Here is a list of the top 15 benefits cryotherapy can provide:

  1. Reduces Exercise-Induced Inflammation
  2. Promotes Muscle Recovery
  3. Provides Neuroprotection and Improves Brain Health
  4. Improves Joint Mobility
  5. Enhances Immune Function
  6. Improves Protein Synthesis
  7. Increases Norepinephrine Improving Focus, Attention, Vigilance, and Cognitive Performance
  8. Effective for Pain Management
  9. Increases Mitochondrial Biogenesis
  10. Reduces Migraine Symptoms
  11. Improves Nerve Irritation
  12. Can Improve Symptoms of Mood Disorders
  13. Reduces Arthritis Pain
  14. Improves Symptoms for Inflammatory Skin Conditions
  15. Triggers Creation of Brown Adipose Tissue (Improves Thermoregulation)

Now that we’ve outlined the full list of potential benefits of cold exposure through cryotherapy, let’s break down a few of the significant benefits for athletes and dive into the details behind why and how they work.

Science Behind Key Benefits:

Brain Health

Cold exposure can have both neuroprotective as well as cognitive-enhancing effects on the brain.

When you expose yourself to cold temperatures, your body responds by releasing norepinephrine. Norepinephrine acts as both a neurotransmitter as well as a hormone, and its role is to increase alertness, focused attention, promote vigilance, and enhance the formation and retrieval of memory. It’s also responsible for mood regulation, which is the reason behind why many people experience a ‘feeling of euphoria’ lasting for a few hours after a cryotherapy session.

Cold exposure could also be responsible for releasing a cold shock protein called RBM3, which is profoundly neuroprotective. Neuroprotection is the ability to preserve, recover, or regenerate the nervous system’s cells, structures, and functions. While research in this field of study is both new and growing, it is a promising indicator for cold exposure’s link to improving longevity and overall brain health.

Immune Function

The Journal of Applied Physiology conducted a study to examine the effects on the immune system from cold exposure.

The study demonstrated that the fall in core body temperature due to cold exposure was responsible for significantly increasing the number of white blood cells found in the participants. Other studies specifically testing cryotherapy also demonstrated the effect of significant increases in white blood cell count – especially lymphocytes and monocytes. 

White blood cells play a critical role in your immune system, and they move throughout your body and look for viruses, bacteria, and parasites. When your body detects an infection or inflammatory condition, white blood cells are released to help fight off the infection.

If your white blood cell count gets too low, your body has a more challenging time fighting off infections and illness. Hormetic stressors like cold exposure can help keep your white blood cell count up and improve your first line of defense in the body. 

Athletic Performance

It’s important that we break down cryotherapy’s benefits into two different categories: endurance and resistance. The reason is that cold exposure has different effects and requires distinct timing protocols in order to maximize the results (and avoid negative impacts).

Endurance Performance

The benefits of cryotherapy and cold exposure for endurance performance are overwhelmingly positive and require less nuance and attention to session timing.

Most notably, cold exposure increases mitochondrial biogenesis, which is the growth and division of pre-existing mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cell). The more mitochondria you have per cell in your muscles, the higher your aerobic capacity during intense exercise and extended endurance – making you more resistant to fatigue.

Performance in endurance training primarily revolves around recovery state between training sessions. Too much, or a buildup of inflammation, leads to decreased performance for several days. The anti-inflammatory effects of cryotherapy mitigate this response and allow you to maintain training intensity over time with less risk of muscular and performance deterioration.

 Strength Training and Bodybuilding

For strength training and promoting muscle hypertrophy, the benefits of cold exposure become more nuanced. The most important factor to address is timing your cold therapy sessions.

You may think that reducing inflammation in the body is an overall good thing. However, if your training goal is to improve strength or increase muscle size, there are critical periods where inflammation positively affects muscle hypertrophy and strength.

There is a roughly one-hour period after your workout where post-exercise inflammation is at its peak. During this time, numerous anabolic pathways open up in response to muscle tissue damage incurred during your training session. Since cold exposure therapy reduces the inflammation response, it can also attenuate the anabolic signaling promoted during this critical time window if you conduct your cold exposure session immediately after training.

So does this mean if you’re a strength athlete or bodybuilder, you should altogether avoid cryotherapy? Not necessarily. 

While a short period of inflammation at the right time can be beneficial, chronic inflammation can also be detrimental to muscle growth. And there are numerous other brain and body benefits of cold therapy you may still want to take advantage of.

In this case, your best option is to time your cold exposure sessions far away from this post-exercise inflammation window. That way, you can still get the benefits of cold shock and lower chronic inflammation, with a lower risk of reducing the anabolic inflammation response triggered by your training sessions.

Pain Management

Recent studies have shown that cryotherapy is an effective and low-risk option for managing chronic pain.

Just like cold exposure has long been part of the R.I.C.E method of recovery and pain management, the same principles apply to protocols like cryotherapy. Cold exposure promotes vasoconstriction (narrowing of blood vessels), slowing down circulation, reducing swelling and the sensation of pain.

Cold exposure therapy also helps temporarily lower sensory nerve stimulation, and this is why local cold exposure (like an ice pack) reduces the sensation of pain on the affected area. Whole-body cryotherapy applies this concept across the entire body, which may be why it helps improve symptoms of chronic or temporary pain.

Cryotherapy for Weight Loss

While bad marketing campaigns have positioned cryotherapy as a “magic pill to melt fat away without exercise,” there is actually quite a lot of merit to cold exposure therapy’s ability to aid you in losing weight, mainly by increasing your metabolic rate and ramping up thermogenesis.

Thermogenesis is how your body creates heat to regulate your body temperature. There are two ways your body does this: shivering thermogenesis and non-shivering thermogenesis.

Shivering thermogenesis is the more commonly known form of how your body creates heat. When you get cold, your body begins to shake to generate heat and warm you back up. While you’re likely to shiver in your cryo session, and it will burn a few calories temporarily, the second way your body keeps warm is far more exciting and impactful.

Non-shivering thermogenesis happens through something called brown fat. Brown fat is a very metabolically active form of fat (which is very small in size, not like the fat around your midsection you may be trying to get rid of. In fact, obese people tend to have less brown fat than people with a low body-fat index). When you burn this fat, it burns hot, and it consumes a lot of calories to generate heat without you needing to shiver.

Through repeated and consistent cold exposure sessions, your body responds by generating more of this type of brown adipose tissue. Since it has more mitochondria per cell than regular fat, it consumes more calories – substantially increasing your metabolic rate for an extended period.

How Long Does a Cryotherapy Session Last?

The average cryotherapy treatment is 3-minutes long. 

However, if it is your first session, a good cryotherapy provider begins with a baseline test. This test typically consists of checking your skin temperature, a 2:00-2:30-minute session, and another skin temperature right after your session.

This allows the technician to see how your body reacts to the extreme cold exposure and gauge the settings and duration of your next cryo session.

As your body becomes cold-adapted over time (and creates more brown adipose tissue to regulate your body temperature better), you will be able to gradually increase the time, lower the temperature, and add in turbulence to enhance the effect of the session.

Cryotherapy Temperature Ranges

Most cryotherapy chambers have a temperature range of about -100 to -300 degrees Fahrenheit. However, one aspect that is equally important to how cold your session “feels” is turbulence. 

Turbulence is the movement of air in the chamber created by a system of fans. The more turbulence during your session, the colder the temperature in the chamber will feel. The reason for this is that your body naturally creates a bubble of heat around your body, giving you a small degree of insulation. Turbulence breaks apart this bubble of warm air through convection, replacing the warmer air with cooler air that directly contacts your skin.

This is the same logic behind wind-chill measurements. Although wind-chill is displayed in degrees ( -10 degrees ambient would be a -37 degree wind-chill with a 25mph wind speed), it is more accurate to describe it as “rate of heat loss” since your body loses more heat through convection.

Because of this, there are three aspects of your cryo session that you can change over time to increase the effect of the cold exposure: Duration, temperature, and turbulence.

Cryotherapy Risks and Side Effects

Just like exercise, cold exposure therapy is a form of voluntary stress. Because of this, you should always first consult your doctor or preferred healthcare provider before doing cryotherapy – especially if you have any underlying health conditions.

Always ensure you sign up for your cryotherapy sessions with a reputable provider. A good provider will ensure the risks involved with extreme negative temperatures are mitigated to give you the safest experience possible.

First and foremost, any contact of bare skin to the surrounding surfaces could result in your skin getting stuck (if you’ve ever watched A Christmas Story, you understand how unpleasant an experience this would be.) 

Your extremities, being the furthest away from your heart, are the first parts of your body to drop in temperature. This, in combination with reducing the risk of skin contact with chamber surfaces, you will be provided with a pair of long socks, slippers, gloves, and a hat. 

Improper use or over-extended exposure could lead to frostbite, hyperthermia, skin irritation, or adverse reactions to underlying health conditions.

To ensure you have a great and safe experience with cryo, consult your doctor, always listen to the provider’s instructions, and exit the chamber immediately if you feel pain.

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