Cryosaunas: the new high tech sports recovery aid?
Alongside 120 miles a week on the track, Mo Farah’s training regime reportedly involves regular use of the cryosauna at Alberto Salazar’s coaching stable. He’s not alone. Taking ice therapy to a whole new level, cryosaunas are becoming a regular feature at many elite-level training facilities. So do they work? We take a look at the evidence.
Cryotherapy and cryosaunas: the lowdown…
Anyone familiar with the treatment of sports injuries will also be aware of the standard PRICE therapy (protection, rest, ice compression and elevation) for self-treatment of minor injuries such as sprains and strains.
The ‘ice’ element of this (i.e. applying an ice pack to a painful or swollen area at regular intervals) is one of the most basic and common examples of cryotherapy; in other words, the use of low temperatures in medical treatment.
At the coldest end of the cryotherapy spectrum, there’s liquid nitrogen. It’s possible to target this locally and accurately to freeze and then remove tissue cells; as such, liquid nitrogen is routinely used in skin surgery.
We know that ‘cold’ - most often in the form of ice packs and ice baths - can alleviate post-performance stiffness, soreness and swelling in athletes. We also know that nitrogen is the go-to element for creating an intensely cold environment in a controlled way. So why not use nitrogen to create for athletes what is in effect a turbo-boosted ice bath: a fully-immersive, short, sharp dose of sub-zero conditions to aid their recovery?
This, in essence, is the cryosauna. The sauna or ‘pod’ contains very cold (as low as -135°C) very dry air. With minimal clothing but with protection for the ears, nose, mouth, hands and feet, the patient steps inside, typically for between two and five minutes.
Who’s using cryosaunas?
For the 2012 Olympics, Alberto Salazar shipped over his cryopod from Oregon to London so Farah and his training partner, Galen Rupp could recover between the 10,000 and 5,000 metres events. In a glimpse at Leicester City’s training routine earlier this year, The Telegraph reported how Jamie Vardy and fellow Foxes were making use of the club’s very own £100,000 cryosauna.
The list of top athletes associated with this type of technology is long and varied, from boxers Floyd Mayweather and Wladimir Klitschko through to the Welsh Rugby Union squad, Jessica Ennis and Theo Walcott.
A cryosauna comes with a big price tag (upwards of £50,000 for a single pod in addition to the costs associated with operation and maintenance). As such, although they are no longer a rarity at top-flight clubs, cryopods are still likely to be considered financially out of reach to the lower tiers of sport.
There is, however, a handful of private commercial facilities where athletes can ‘drop in’ for a cryosauna session. The Guardian reported that two sessions at Cryoclinics in Hendon costs £50.
Does it work?
There are many anecdotal reports of athletes who are enthusiastic advocates of the treatment. The reports are that it’s both physically and mentally invigorating, and users notice the difference in terms of instant relief from post-performance stiffness and soreness.
But does this make it inherently better than more traditional (and considerably less expensive) forms of cold therapy? The jury’s out on this. In favour of the cryopod is speed of effect; Leicester City’s physiotherapist explained how a cryopod “shuts down” acute soft tissue injuries by reducing blood flow and inflammation almost instantly.
It’s a more intense experience than applying an ice pack or sitting in an ice bath, and it’s perceived by many trainers and athletes as being more fast acting than either of these old ways of doing things. Yet various studies have failed to demonstrate that cryosaunas result in better outcomes in terms of recovery than other forms of treatment. Although it doesn’t seem to cause any adverse effects, as one study put it, “less expensive modes of cryotherapy such as local ice-pack application or cold-water immersion offer comparable physiological and clinical effects.”
It’s also important to remember that the elite-level athletes who use cryosaunas do not rely on them in isolation. Each aspect of their wellbeing and performance is closely monitored and addressed. An on-site cryosauna might be an exciting addition to the locker room, but it’s no replacement for targeted treatment and advice for specific injuries.
Any views or opinions expressed in this briefing are for guidance only and are not intended as a substitute for appropriate professional guidance. We have taken all reasonable steps to ensure the information contained herein is accurate at the time of writing but it should not be regarded as a complete or authoritative statement of law.