Can whole-body ice therapy speed up the recovery process? Peta Bee investigates

Deep-freezing your way to recovery in sport first became popular over a decade ago when former England rugby players Lawrence Dallaglio and Joe Worsley were among the first to publicise the fact that they had been using the relatively unheard of approach called ‘whole body cryotherapy’. The players were making regularly trips to an Olympic training centre in Poland for the treatment that involved them standing in a cryotherapy chamber at temperatures that the body can barely withstand.

Fast forward a decade and the use of cryotherapy in sport has become widespread. Mobile cryotherapy units are present at many major athletics championships and Mo Farah has spoken about using them to recover from training sessions. “You work hard, it’s important to recover as quick as you can,” Farah said. “It helps you to recover when you’ve done really hard training or racing.”

Formula One driver Mark Webber has credited it with aiding his performance and Daniel Craig has used cryotherapy to get into shape for his James Bond role.

How does it work?

Inside a sealed cryotherapy unit, liquid nitrogen is used to chill the air to minus 135C – to put that into perspective, many ski resorts are forced to close when weather conditions drop to a potentially dangerous minus 35C. Each session in the chamber begins with a 30-second ‘acclimatisation’ blast of air cooled to around minus 57C. Temperatures then plummet dramatically for several minutes after which you emerge to complete a short session on a treadmill or bike.

What do you wear?

With a very real risk of frostbite or ice burn, extremities must be covered and goggles or a special mask worn to “prevent the fluid in your eyeballs from freezing”. You can withstand only a few minutes at a time inside the chamber, so the procedure is sometimes repeated several times a day.

It sounds like torture. Is it worth it?

Many sports scientists believe cryotherapy helps to accelerate the body’s recovery process to five times quicker than normal, allowing for greater intensity and volume of training in the long-term. It is said to improve blood flow and rid the body of waste products that can hinder performance. One leading Premier League rugby coach told me his players could generally achieve two weeks’ worth of training in one week when they use cryotherapy.

Any proof it works?

Forms of cryotherapy are used medically to treat some major illnesses, including cancer, and while there are small trials suggesting it is helpful in sport, any gains are likely to be marginal – if they occur at all.

Indeed, a review of evidence that appeared in the most recent issue of the Cochrane Review suggested only four small studies, involving a total of 64 subjects, had looked at the effects of cryotherapy on sports recovery.

Dr Joseph Costello, the researcher in Sports Medicine at the University of Portsmouth who conducted the review, said they had produced “weak” and insubstantial evidence that it helped improve muscle soreness in the 24-72 hours post-activity.

He concluded that it wasn’t worth putting yourself through the discomfort.

“The current available evidence is insufficient to support the use of whole body cryotherapy for preventing and treating muscle soreness after exercise,” Dr Costello wrote.