Cryotherapy for Runners: Needless Torture or Panacea?

Olive in a cryo tankLast week, Cinnamon explained how ice baths can impede the adaptation process our bodies go through after hard training. However, there are some circumstances when the benefits of cold therapy like ice baths, spot-icing, or cryotherapy may be worth the trade-offs. While the evidence suggests cold does not actually improve recovery, it may reduce post-workout pain and make a runner feel more recovered. The evidence is not clear whether this is simply a placebo effect, or that the ice does something to us physically to improve pain, but many of the world’s top athletes swear by cold therapy, particularly before their most important competitions.

When it comes to cold therapy, every runner who has every tried one has an opinion on the post-run ice bath. Those opinions tend to range from awful to very awful, and most runners spend their time in the ice bath counting down each minute of it. This probably explains why cryotherapy, which offers all of the benefits of the ice bath and then some in just three minutes, is becoming popular among athletes. I’m lucky enough to live in a town with more than one cryotherapy studio, and since I’m usually recovering from some sort of an injury, I’ve gone a few times and want to offer my thoughts for my fellow sore runners.

What is Cryotherapy?

Cryotherapy blows nitrogen cooled, dry air into a chamber that lowers the client’s skin surface temperature by 30-50 degrees. Clients get completely naked and stand in a chamber for two to three minutes, while cold air flows around their body. Proponents of cryotherapy say that this helps reduce inflammation and lactic acid, and also releases anti-inflammation molecules and endorphins. They also claim it stimulates collagen production, burns calories, increases energy levels, and helps with sleep. However, these claims have not been proven scientifically.

I’ve used cryotherapy here in San Antonio several times (shout out to CryoFit San Antonio!). The process is nearly always the same. First, the technician checks your blood pressure to make sure you’re a good candidate, as people with high blood pressure are not advised to try cryotherapy. Then, you’re asked to strip down. I keep on one pair of socks, mittens and slippers. Men get an extra sock to put on their junk. After you’re naked, you step into the chamber and the technician turns it on, and the nitrogen-cooled air that gets as cold as -250 degrees Fairenheit starts blowing on you. You spin like a rotisserie chicken for three minutes, then get out and get dressed. The technician takes your blood pressure a second time; she is looking for a boost in your systolic blood pressure which indicates a good freeze.

What does it feel like?

It feels like being naked in a snow storm. Spinning around slowly in a circle and marching my legs up and down helps, but it’s still cold AF. The first time I tried it, my nipples were so cold that I thought they’d fall off, and so I cross my arms over my chest now. The technician counts down the three minutes, and I try to only think about each second at a time instead of how much time I have left. This is not unlike running a marathon, and usually around the 90 second mark I generally feel like I’d prefer to be running a marathon. But after the freeze is over and I’m dressed, I do feel an endorphin boost and am hungrier than normal. This may be psychosomatic, but I choose to believe it’s because I’ve burned extra calories.

Sounds great, any drawbacks?

There are a few negatives to cryotherapy. Primarily, it costs significantly more than a bag of ice. Prices can reach up to $100 a session, which is a lot to spend on three minutes. Also, the scientific studies investigating the purported benefits of cryotherapy are inconclusive at best. In the case of weight loss, no study shows this. What seems to be happening is that proponents of the weight loss benefits of cryotherapy take findings from studies out of context, spinning findings related to cryotherapy’s impact on musculo-skeletal healing that use the word “metabolism”. I probably don’t need to say this, but the younger-looking skin can better be achieved by eating well and using sunscreen. Cryotherapy might also be more dangerous than an ice bath. In 2015, a Las Vegas esthetician died after entering a cryotherapy chamber after-hours. She became unconscious after inhaling the nitrogen and collapsed in the chamber, where she was found 10 hours later. Cryotherapy also is not currently regulated by the FDA, which gives some athletes pause.

So should you try it?

If you have extra money to spend and like trying new trends, the chances are that cryotherapy won’t hurt you and may help you feel more refreshed or recovered or reduce your pain. As I stated at the beginning, the pain-reducing benefits of cryotherapy may be the placebo effect, but Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Floyd Mayweather, Jr, and many other top athletes swear by it. But if you want to save the money and not lose a nipple, buy a bag of ice.

Have you every resorted to cryotherapy? What was your experience like?

I am a stay at home mom and group fitness instructor from South Texas. I love reading, wine, and travel. I write about trends, injury prevention and maintenance, and satire. I am training to break 1:30 in the half marathon sometime soon, and for the 2017 Boston Marathon.

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  1. I used to do ice baths pretty regularly but have found hitting a recovery drink right after and rolling seems to get me back to the same place without freezing my toes off. I would probably go back to doing them if I was running two-a-days because I do think you get a quicker rebound. I also just don’t usually have time. I have not done cryotherapy, and I’m not sure we have anyone offering it locally, yet. (There is a place that will rent those normatech boots though…)

  2. Personally I don’t hate ice baths as much as most people do. I don’t do them nearly as much as I used to but they are still a handy tool to have in the recovery box- and a cheap one.

    1. Lately I’ve started doing Epsom salt baths instead just because they’re a lot more bearable. Especially after a run in the cold (which I can’t wait for!!).