Despite the popularity cold water immersion has gained for its potential benefits in post-exercise recovery, the current evidence on its effects is mixed, according to Dr. Malek.
Some studies show positive results in reducing delayed onset muscle soreness and perceived fatigue, but its overall impact on inflammation (the mechanism most perceived benefits have been accredited to) remains unclear.
Cold water therapy is thought to work through various mechanisms, including vasoconstriction, acting as an analgesic, slowing inflammatory pathways, placebo effects, and hydrostatic pressure. While CWI may help alleviate soreness and fatigue in the 24-96 hours following exercise, reducing the inflammatory response might hinder the body’s adaptation to exercise and stressors, potentially affecting strength and aerobic gains, Dr. Malek explained.
As for injury prevention, direct evidence linking cryotherapy to injury reduction is lacking, too. However, by decreasing DOMS and fatigue, athletes may experience better muscle performance, which could indirectly influence injury risk.
“Injuries are complex and multifactorial,” Dr. Malek reminded Men’s Health. “Athletes with intense training schedules may find cold water therapy beneficial in helping them feel well-rested and recovered, thereby affecting their overall performance. Nevertheless, cold water immersion should be used judiciously, especially considering its potential effects on the body’s adaptive response to exercise.”