Cold water immersion, does one-size-fit-all?

Your weekly research review

Francisco Tavares

By Dr. Francisco Tavares
November 29th, 2019 | 5 min read

Contents of Research Review

  1. Background & Objective
  2. What They Did
  3. What They Found
  4. Practical Takeaways
  5. Reviewer’s Comments
  6. About the Reviewer

Background & Objective

Cold water immersion (CWI) is frequently implemented by athletes to speed-up recovery. It has previously been identified that an athlete’s characteristics such as body composition influence the effects of CWI. This study compared the effects of a customized CWI (CWIc) protocol, a standard CWI (CWIs) protocol and an active recovery (AR) protocol on different measures of fatigue.

What They Did

Across three consecutive weeks, ten physical active male participants performed a fatiguing protocol (60 squat jumps and a 2 min and 30s all-out cycling time-trial). After the fatiguing protocol, the participants were exposed to the CWIc protocol (12°C, 10-17 min), CWIs protocol (15°C, 10 min), or the AR protocol (60 W, 10 min). During the CWIc, participants were exposed to a fixed temperature of 12°C with a variable immersion duration for each participant. The individual durations were calculated using the ProCcare software which is designed to predict the responses of an individual’s body temperature to CWI.

Measures of fatigue were obtained on the day prior to the fatiguing protocol, as well as 0 and 24 h after the fatiguing protocol was completed. The measures of fatigue obtained included:

  •  Heart rate variability (HRV) as HRVrecovery (HRVr): Difference between the HRV obtained after the fatiguing protocol and after the recovery protocol;
  •  Muscle power (MP) as the mean power of all squat jumps performed over 30 s: Difference between MP obtained at the baseline and after the recovery protocol;
  • Muscle soreness (MS) on a scale of 1-10 obtained after recovery and 24 h after.
  • What They Found

  • HRVr was significantly lower using AR in comparison to both CWI protocols. Although, HRVr was significantly greater in CWIc when compared to CWIs, no differences were obtained in HRV following the CWIc and CWIs.
  • The decline in MP was significantly greater in CWIs in comparison to CWIc. No differences were observed between CWI protocols and AR.
  • No differences between groups were observed in MS after following each protocol and 24 h following.
  • Practical Takeaways

    The findings from this study suggest that a customized CWI protocol may enhance acute recovery in comparison to a standard CWI and AR. Typically, customizing a CWI protocol is conducted by increasing exposure time, water temperature or a combination of both. This though can sometimes be challenging as due to individualised body composition characteristics such as fat mass and body weight) athletes may be exposed to varying levels of CWI intensity. By using this model, practitioners can customize CWI protocols to each athlete, therefore increasing the effectiveness of the recovery intervention.

    Reviewer’s Comments

    “The authors found that CWIc can have a beneficial effect on HRVr and MP in comparison to CWIs. Although, no differences were observed on the HRV post-exercise between CWI groups, suggesting that CWI may have a limited effect on HRV. Interestingly, no differences were observed for MP between CWIs or CWIc and AR. Changes in muscle temperature are associated to differences in the environmental temperature (i.e. water) and duration of exposure. As individuals using the CWIc protocol in comparison to the CWIs protocol were exposed to lower temperatures (12°C vs 15°C, respectively) and longer durations (13.0 ± 2.7 min vs 10 min, respectively), it is expected that muscle temperatures were also decreased to a greater extent. Nevertheless, if objective measures of muscle temperature were collected, it would aid to understand the observed beneficial effects of CWIc in comparison to CWIs in MP.

    Although the observed effects on CWIc are a consequence of the lower temperatures and longer durations, it would be interesting if one of the CWI variables, such as temperature or duration was controlled between CWI groups. Furthermore, understanding the effects of CWIc on greater levels of fatigue (i.e. rugby match) would likely lead to a more pronounced effect of the customisation of CWI protocol.

    From a personal perspective, I had the chance to try the software used to individualise the CWI protocols (ProCcare) and itis great as it offers the possibility to generate an individualise a CWI protocol by entering basic body composition measures such as body weight, height and fat mass, but also allows you to enter more complex measures such as skin area.

    As mentioned in the Performance Digest issue #15, from an applied stand point, a coach or practitioner can divide the squad in two or more groups, e.g. a high and a lowfat group, and create different CWI protocols, e.g. 8 min in the CWI bin for the low-fat group and 12 min in the bin for the high-fat group. This allows for a more individualised approach to the recovery process.”

    Want to learn more?
    Then check these out…

    Watch this video
    Read this article
    Read this article
    Listen to this podcast

    The full study can be read here.

    Want more research reviews like this?

    Every coach understands the importance of staying up-to-date with the latest sports performance research like this, but none have the time, energy, or even enjoys spending hours upon hours searching through PubMed and other academic journals. Instead, your precious time is better-spent coaching, programming, and managing all the other more important aspects of your job.

    The solution…

    The Performance Digest
    The Performance Digest is a monthly summary of the latest sports performance research reviewed by our team of hand-selected experts. We sift through the 1,000+ studies published in the realms of sports performance every, single month and review only those which are important to you. Each monthly issues contains 19 research reviews in all of the following disciplines:

  • Coaching Science
  • Strength & Conditioning
  • Technology & Monitoring
  • Fatigue & Recovery
  • Youth Development
  • Nutrition
  • Injury Prevention & Rehab
  • This comprehensive topic base ensures you’re constantly expanding your knowledge and accelerating your career as quickly as humanly possible. The reviews are also hyper-focused, 1-page summaries, meaning there’s no jargon or wasted time. We cut right to the chase and tell you what you need to know so you can get back to coaching.

    Join the thousands of other coaches who read it every, single month. Click here to grab your FREE copy…

    Francisco Tavares

    Dr. Francisco Tavares

    Francisco is the Performance Coordinator for Sporting Lisbon and has previously worked as a S&C coach in elite rugby with the Chiefs Super Rugby franchise and the PRO14 team Glasgow Warriors. He holds a PhD from Waikato University and is a published author.

    More content by Francisco

    Unlock 1,000+ Sports Science Studies For Free

    Access the latest research on Strength & Conditioning, Nutrition, Coaching, Recovery, Technology, Rehab, and Youth Development.

    Get Instant Access
    Performance Digest

    Unlock 1,000+ Sports Science Studies For Free

    Get instant access to over 1,000 must-know sports science studies without paying a penny. You'll get the latest research on Strength & Conditioning, Nutrition, Coaching, Recovery, Technology, Rehab, and Youth Development.

    Get Instant Access