Background about Cold water immersion
Cold water immersion may be beneficial for acute recovery after exercise. However, there has been recent speculation that this may impair long-term performance by attenuating stimuli (such as fatigue and inflammation) responsible for adaptation and performance enhancement.
A recent study from the Australian Institute of Sport does not support this speculation.
In this study, endurance-trained competitive cyclists simulated aspects of a Grand Tour for 3 weeks. The protocol: Within 30 minutes after exercise, cyclists immersed their whole body (except head and neck) in water at 15 degrees Celsius for 15 minutes. After the immersion session was completed they were allowed to towel-off and change into dry clothes but not shower right away. They did this immersion four times per week for three weeks.
Compared to a control group (who did the same regimen but refrained from cold water immersion) the cold water immersion group did not have decreased performance. In fact, they likely improved on some cycling tests: the second effort of a 4-minute power test and the 1-second maximum test. It was unclear if cold water immersion made any change in tests such as the first 4-minute power test and 10-minute time trial. However, the cold water immersion group was not any slower than the control group in these tests.
Over 3 weeks of intensified training in endurance-trained competitive cyclists simulating aspects of a Grand Tour, there was no evidence that cold water immersion was detrimental to adaptation or performance.
How cold immersion works: In the short term, hydrostatic pressure of the bath may limit the formation of swelling in the extremities and assist in reducing muscle swelling by causing fluid to move from the tissue into the blood vessels for clearance. Cold temperatures cause peripheral blood vessels to constrict and blood to move toward the body’s core. Coldness also decreases pain perception and muscle spasm.
In the longer term, it is less clear how cold immersion may help. A less fatigued athlete may be able to complete training with increased quality and quantity. Additionally, cold temperatures have also been demonstrated to increase production of molecules important for energy production in the muscle mitochondria.
Take home points
If you are an endurance-trained competitive cyclist undergoing a 3 week period of increased training which simulates aspects of a Grand Tour, cold water immersion after training may be beneficial to your recovery in the short run and also not hurt your performance over these three weeks.