Is Cryotherapy Good for Runners?

If you are a distance runner, you may have suffered through an ice bath. The idea of an ice bath is that after a long run you submerge yourself in a tub of ice for fifteen excruciating minutes in order to reduce inflammation, reduce muscle soreness and speed up the recovery process. Runners have been doing this for ages. Suffer much? What if there was a better way? 

I started seeing Cryotherapy ads pop up everywhere. There were new locations near my home, it was all over social media, Groupon and I even saw it on an episode of Shark Tank. While it is relatively new to the United States, Cryotherapy has been used and studied for about thirty years. Could this be a better solution for runners than an ice bath?

In doing a little research (aka Google) I learned that Cryotherapy envelopes the body with extremely cold air temperatures ranging from -166 to -320 degrees in order to reduce inflammation. Some of the sites I read claimed many other benefits including better sleep, decreased joint pain, boosted immune system and weight loss (they claim you can burn up to 1000 calories after a three minute session).

As a fitness professional, I am always a little skeptical of quick fixes or short cuts being promoted in the industry. As a rule, if you want to get stronger, leaner or faster, you have to do the work. There is no pill, wrap, drink or magic bullet solution to success. Work hard, eat healthfully, be consistent and expect success. That's it. 

Is Cryotherapy another gimmick designed to empty our pocketbooks or is there something to this? I was mainly interested in Cryotherapy for the reduced inflammation, reduced muscle soreness and shortened recovery time benefits. There were a lot of articles about how it can be beneficial for athletes. My husband and I do an intense HIIT (high intensity interval training) workout that involves treadmill speed intervals and weight circuits three times a week, plus I am training for a half marathon, so I also run a long run once a week.

I've noticed as I have gotten older, I don't recover as quickly and I have more aches and pains than I did in my youth (Oh, Gosh I sound old). There was a time when I could run every single day without pain, aches or injury. These days, my body needs a day off (or two) between hard sessions. I always listen to my body to prevent injury and/or overtraining. It's not the recovery time I mind, I will always take recovery days because muscle adaptation (growth) happens during rest, not when you are working. (Side note: When I take a day off, I tell myself it is my muscle growing day to make myself feel better. No, it's not leg day, it's not a rest day, it's muscle growing day.)

With that being said, I liked the idea of Cryotherapy as a way to feel less achy, reduce minor pain and muscle soreness in between hard workouts. You know, sort of like an ice bath, but without getting soaking wet. I was willing to give Cryotherapy a shot.

I decided to take advantage of a $15 introductory offer over at CryoNation in Grapevine, TX. I brought Hubby along for the fun, because I was slightly terrified and needed his moral support during my three minutes in -320 degrees and I wanted to give you a man's perspective in addition to my own.

We signed in and the sweet girl at the front desk could see the fear in my eyes and did her best to assure me that everything would be OK. 

What to Expect

They brought hubby and I back to the small dark room with the Cryotherapy chamber. They pointed out the baskets of clean cotton socks, gloves and cotton boxers (for men) and asked me to ring the bell once I was in the chamber. 

Once the attendant left the room, I undressed and put on the socks, gloves and a fluffy white robe, although I didn't really need the robe (except for photo purposes) because you remove it before you get in the chamber. I opened the door of the chamber and stepped into what looked like a side-hinged beer can that was padded on the inside. Once I was comfortably standing inside (as comfortable as you can be only wearing gloves and socks) I pushed a button that notified the attendant that I was ready for my session. 

 Good thing I had this bathrobe so hubby could take my picture before I stepped into the chamber.

Good thing I had this bathrobe so hubby could take my picture before I stepped into the chamber.

The attendant walked back in the room and raised the floor of the chamber so only my head was elevated above the top of the chamber. He talked me through the entire three minutes, it helped distract me from the cold and made me feel more comfortable about the whole process. It was freezing but not an uncomfortable cold like you might feel if you were stuck outside naked in a snow storm. I was dancing around almost instinctively to try to stay warm. The hyper-cooled air cools the surface of the skin but without ever freezing any skin tissue. Your skin never gets wet, so it is a dry cold feeling (probably different than anything you've ever experienced). While it was extremely cold, it was definitely more comfortable than an ice bath (and I learned it is a lot safer too).

Once my three minutes were over the attendant left the room while I redressed. My skin felt cold, but I warmed up quickly. Time will tell whether I will feel any long term benefits of Cryotherapy, but one thing is for sure, the endorphins were strong. I felt amazing, just like that runners' high after a great run, maybe even more intense. That's probably why they wait until after the session, when you're all happy and giddy, for them to hit with you the package prices (which in all fairness, were reasonable).

After I warmed up, Hubby went through the same process while I sat in the room with him. He chose to forgo the cotton boxers (note of conscious: Would he want this bit of info on the internet? Sorry honey, we speak the truth here). He agreed the cold was tolerable and felt the same endorphin rush after the session. 

Just like one workout, one massage or one day taking vitamins, you can't tell the effectiveness of any new program after just one session. It was probably the endorphins driving our spending but hubby and I bought a 10 session package (that we can share) to give this Cryotherapy thing a real test. 

After we finished we had planned on heading home to the ShredShed (our gym) for our usual workout. I don't know for sure if it was related to the Cryotherapy but I felt a little drained about an hour after the session and almost (almost) skipped my normal workout. I powered through it but in the future, I think I will save the sessions for after my workouts when I need it most for recovery. 

Final Thoughts

Cryotherapy is a great tool that runners can use to help speed recovery and one that I will continue to pursue. It should be used in combination with strength training to correct muscle imbalances (that can be the cause of certain pain and injuries), foam rolling, stretching and proper rest as part of a total recovery plan. If you have an injury, see a medical professional for advice. 

I am looking forward to using my remaining sessions over the next few weeks to continue my experiment with how my body responds to Cryotherapy. While a bag or two of ice may be a lot cheaper, Cryotherapy is definitely more comfortable, safer and a faster process than an ice bath for runners. 

Keep Running,

Lea