Recovery rooms – facilities which offer the use of recovery tools such as ice baths, contrast therapy, recovery boots, saunas, jacuzzis, etc – have greatly expanded in availability in recent years. In this article we explore the merits and the myths behind some of these recovery strategies.
Firstly, it should be noted that many of the strategies work, or are proposed to work, by promoting blood circulation to and from tissue which has been damaged either through training or through injury. Better blood flow or circulation equals greater waste product removal from and greater nutrient transportation to these tissues. The concept of active recovery – a walk, light cycle or recovery run – primarily revolves around the same principle.
Before going any further, it would be remiss of me not to point out that all of the tools offered by recovery rooms merely operate as supplementary recovery strategies to bigger recovery strategies such as nutrition, sleep, hydration and a stress-free environment. Neglect these four major strategies and the supplementary strategies will be of very limited use.
Cold therapy (cryotherapy) has long been proposed as a useful method of combating inflammation. The mechanism behind this is likely to be multi-faceted, and may include the direct reduction of inflammation through immersion in a cold environment, improved circulation in the aftermath of an ice bath as blood vessels began to dilate once again and a positive endocrine effect from the application of a cold stimulus. While ice baths can be successful in reducing inflammation, recent research indicates that their use in the immediate aftermath of training may blunt adaptation (but we’re not certain of this). We never want to blunt adaptation from a training stimulus, as achieving adaptation is the be all and end all if we are to obtain the benefits which we desire from our training. This blocking of adaptation may be more pronounced when it comes to hypertrophy training as opposed to endurance training, but again the evidence is insufficient on this point.
Generally, there are two occasions where I encourage the use of ice baths – (a) during the early stages of an injury to help stimulate the repair of tissue when inflammation is incredibly high and (b) when you have a very short turnaround in between competitions. There may also be merit in using an ice bath in the hours prior to competition to induce a positive endocrine response, to heighten your nervous system or to prevent your body temperature from overheating. Moreover, ice baths can confer other health promoting benefits outside of recovery from training. Notwithstanding all this, more research is required before I can espouse the regular use of ice baths after training.
Before moving on, one final question needs to be addressed. This is the question of how cold the water in an ice bath should be. If the water is too warm, then it cannot address the underlying mechanisms which are touted to induce recovery and healing. However, if the water is too cold, then it can lead to the excessive constriction of blood vessels and can unduly compromise your immune system. A happy medium must be found.
Contrast therapy is a method of recovery which involves alternating between the application of hot and cold stimuli, in order to oscillate between vasal constriction and vasal dilation. In the context of recovery rooms, we are generally talking about full body immersion through the use of baths. The total duration of the treatment can last anywhere between 15 and 45 minutes, with around 3-5 minute blocks spent in each environment at a time.
Due to the combination of vasal constriction and vasal dilation, contrast therapy can greatly aid in promoting circulation throughout the body. As touched upon earlier, better circulation equals greater nutrient transportation to cells and increased waste product removal from tissues. Unlike ice baths, there is no known adaptation blunting response associated with contrast therapy.
NORMATEC RECOVERY BOOTS
Normatec boots have steadily increased in popularity over the course of the past decade or so. This device – which essentially resembles a pair of inflated trousers – is designed to apply graduated pressure to your legs to aid blood flow. In this vein, it can play a similar role to contrast therapy. While it is effective in doing so, it is debateable as to whether it is any more effective than gentle active recovery, in the form of a walk or a light cycle.
Nordic and Eastern European countries have long advocated the proposed merits of saunas. Modern research suggests that the use of environmental heat may increase the production of heat shock proteins, which can aid recovery and promote general health. Moreover, the use of a hot environment will naturally enhance your ability to sweat and to dissipate heat. The greater your ability to sweat when exercising in hot conditions, the greater your performance will be. The minimal effective dose to achieve these benefits remains elusive. What is certain is that you do not want to unduly stress your body through your length of stay in a sauna.
The central difference between saunas and steam rooms revolves around dry versus wet heat. Whether the latter are as effective as the former is inconclusive. Personally, I don’t like the use of steam rooms and their use comes with one key caveat that microorganisms love warm, damp environments. The risk of picking up a respiratory infection is not negligible and the use of steam rooms may not be advisable for anybody with pre-existing respiratory difficulties.
Finally, we come to the topic of jacuzzis, probably the most appealing and relaxing of all of the potential recovery tools which we have discussed in this article. Research on their effectiveness is sparse. The targeted application of jets of water may help to relax tension in muscles but most jacuzzis are not sophisticated enough to enable this to occur effectively. Ultimately, jacuzzis may promote recovery simply by virtue of making you feel good. Without abandoning decades of science, it must be acknowledged that recovery occurs at a faster rate if we are in a happy state, compared to when our mood is lower.
In summary, the use of recovery rooms can lead to quicker recovery from training and competition, but will be of minimal value if you fail to adequately address your sleep, nutrition, hydration and general stress levels. Whether you decide to use recovery rooms will likely boil down to availability and a weighting of the benefits versus the financial cost. If their use makes you feel good or acts as a de-stressor, then you are more likely to derive benefit from them.