Your performance on competition day depends on more than just the hours you spend in the gym. Sleep and recovery play an enormous part in allowing you to unlock your true athletic potential. In a recent post I discussed how sleeping naked can positively influence sleep and improve athletic performance. In this post, I'd like to focus on an aspect of recovery that combines biology with cutting edge technology : cryotherapy.
What is cryotherapy? It's simple really. "Cryo" means cold and therapy is well, therapy. But how is cryotherapy different from a traditional ice bath? More importantly, why is cryotherapy more effective than spending 20 miserable minutes in a giant tub of ice water possibly with other sweaty folks? It may be helpful to start with a picture.
The easiest visual explanation of the machine is that it is an upright tanning bed that is hooked to a tank of gaseous nitrogen. Upon entering the chamber, you are completely naked (kind of like how you should be sleeping). However, you must wear gloves and booties to protect the extremities and of course, guys also wear an extra sock to protect their junk. Over the course of three minutes, the machine releases the nitrogen in a controlled pattern that is unique for each individual. Every person has a different temperature setting ranging from -140 degrees Celsius (ie, beginners) to -160 degrees Celsius (ie, pros). The setting is also dependent on tolerance to cold as well as direct feedback during the three-minute freezing session. The first time I stepped into this cryo machine I distracted myself from the subzero temperatures by pretending that I was swimming in the North Atlantic much like during my college days. By my second session, the cold became more tolerable and soon enough, the cold became euphoric. It was also the best kind of air conditioning on summer days in Hotlanta.
So what's the purpose of using nitrogen and how is this different from a traditional ice bath? You may not know that water crosses your skin (side note: biologists like to say "permeate") and nitrogen does not. In the world of biology, cold water crossing the skin immediately signals your body to pump blood to your core to protect your heart and brain. This biological response means that the muscles suffer and can't be provided with sufficient blood flow, preventing the replenishment of nutrients and oxygen levels after an intense training session. Because nitrogen does not cross the skin and rather cools the skin, this actually activates a whole-body stress response (in a good way). Your skin is the largest organ after all. During this three-minute freezing session, blood is also being pumped to your core but unlike ice baths, there is an immediate re-flushing of blood back to the muscles.
An additional athletic benefit of cyrotherapy is that it quickly calms whole-body physiological stress experienced after an intense training session. Physiological stress is of course caused by rapid increases in core body temperature, blood flow, and oxygen demands. Cryotherapy is also beneficial for curbing inflammation experienced after surgery, improving recovery. Of course, one of the most amazing benefits of cryotherapy (to me) is helping to get a better night's sleep. I talk about this extensively in my recent popular science book, Meathead: Unraveling the Athletic Brain.
Cryotherapy And Sleep
I'm a great sleeper but many of my teammates are not. Because of this, I encouraged them to keep sleep diaries. A sleep diary is an effective tool for making people consciously aware of how little and how poorly they are sleeping and an effective motivator for encouraging people to get more sleep. After Team Terminus started using sleep diaries alongside pre-existing use of cyrotherapy, I crunched the numbers. Team Terminus (aka #pandanation) averaged 8.5 h of sleep a night, which is in line with the recommended amount of sleep for adults (8.4 h). #Pandanation's sleep was also far above the average of 6-7 h reported from surveys of more than 10,000 Americans collected by the National Sleep Foundation.
There was also a "weekend effect" in that Team Terminus slept 40 minutes more on the weekend. More sleep on the weekend is also common for the general population. Despite this extra sleep on the weekends, self-report of sleep quality by #pandanation did not change. Most interesting, when days of cryotherapy were measured against hours of sleep and sleep quality, there was a statistically significant impact; #pandanation slept more and had better quality sleep even when controlling for the weekend effect and day and time of exercise.
Cryotherapy Is Not A Magic Bullet
Will cryotherapy turn you into Rich Froning overnight and have you pounding through Fran in two minutes flat? Not a chance, but it could be a valuable resource in your recovery toolkit if used correctly. It is certainly an option that you should explore in more detail if proper recovery has become an impediment to your athletic training.
Curious about cryotherapy and looking for a location near you? Unfortunately there is no national cryotherapy database. Your best bet is to do a Yelp search to find a location in your area. If you are in Atlanta, check out Icebox Cryotherapy. They have a pretty amazing location and provide an awesome service whenever Team Terminus needs a little deep freeze action!
Professional: Academic Researcher with a focus on neurobiology @ Morehouse School of Medicine and professor at Morehouse College
PHD Info: Kent State with a focus on neurobiology (PHD from Department of Biological Sciences)
CrossFit Games Experience: 2014 Regionals Athlete, 2013 CrossFit Games - Team, 2012 Regionals Athlete
Collegiate Athletic Background: Brown University Track & Field, 4 year varsity letterman, specialist in pole vault and hurdles
Facebook: Meathead: Unraveling The Athletic Brain
Allison's Blog: www.dormivigilia.com
Instagram and Twitter: @beastlyvaulter