The cold: bites and healing

Benefits of cold on athlete's health: myths and realities

The cold is one of the untouchable totems of sports medicine. It would be an essential ally to limit muscle stiffness, better oxygenate your muscles and recover more quickly after intense effort.


Aches, muscle inflammation and various pain go hand in hand with physical exertion. Professional and amateur athletes alike are well placed to find out! The physical trainers then rely on the effects of the cold to relieve the body and allow them to recover faster.

From ice massage to injecting cold saline water, not forgetting immersing a limb in ice water, there are many ways to use the benefits of the cold. At the top of the list, the most courageous athletes immerse their whole body for about twenty minutes in a bath maintained at around 10 ° C thanks to the addition of ice cubes. Another alternative: the contrast bath which consists of spending two to three minutes in a tub of cold water before submerging four to five minutes in hot water (35 to 40 ° C).
In recent years, specialized centers have even offered cryotherapy sessions to athletes and the general public. Installed in a sort of giant cylinder leaving only the head, the person is here subjected to a particularly intense cold which can range from -110 ° C to -140 ° C, for three minutes maximum, in order to cause a thermal shock.

Bath 1

Do not overestimate its effects

That being said, if the invigorating effect of ice cream is undeniable, its other virtues should be put into perspective. According to this 2016 Australian study, the cold can reduce certain clinical signs of inflammation, such as swelling in a limb, without reducing the inflammation itself. Taking a pain reliever to reduce the pain of a fracture is good, but it does not reduce the injury. More generally, these scientists claim that "Cold water immersion is no more effective than a classic active recovery to minimize inflammatory and stress responses after a resistance sports session". Not to mention that, during training, the cold could slow down the muscle's adaptation to the effort.
A compilation of medical data carried out in 2015 by the Cochrane Library concludes that"There is not enough evidence to determine whether whole body cryotherapy reduces self-reported muscle soreness or improves subjective recovery after exercise compared to passive rest situations". Finally, acute and chronic exposure to cold causes changes in the body's defense cells (neutrophils and lymphocytes). These transformations could explain why we are more vulnerable to viral infections when we take a "cold snap". Moderate cold would increase aerobic capacity by redistributing skin circulation to the muscle. However, exposure to severe cold could irritate the bronchi and decrease the ability to produce high cardiopulmonary performance for many hours. Cold tolerance decreases with age. Also, patients with heart disease are more sensitive to cold and their cardiopulmonary capacity is reduced. The cold can therefore be dangerous for some individuals. Large population studies confirm increased overall mortality during periods of very cold weather in more vulnerable people. During acute exposure, immunity may wane, but chronic exposure to cold would improve the immune response. In addition, an adaptation to the cold seems to decrease the generation of stress hormones which would make us less vulnerable to infections. This could explain, among other things, the virtues of Nordic baths which stimulate blood circulation. Everything is therefore a question of balance.

Body and mind

But what is the interest of these different practices? The cold remedy is an effective method to decrease the pain and reduce the aches that necessarily appear after exercising. Immersion in cold water would thus decrease muscle inflammation and its unpleasant side effects. Cold is first known for its analgesic power. Everyone has experienced it, it anesthetizes tissues and calms burns and pains. But it is also a very good anti-inflammatory, which makes it possible to reduce edemas and reduce inflammation caused by an outbreak of arthritis or by trauma (sprain or a torn tooth), for example. Applying ice to the skin, not without a cloth to protect it, is also the first measure to be taken in the event of a sprain, muscle and ligament tears. The cold also protects cells, as explained by Dr Mauro Oddo, assistant doctor in the adult intensive medicine department at the CHUV in Lausanne and specialist in neuro-resuscitation: “Voluntary and controlled hypothermia of the organism, practiced in intensive medicine, clearly improves the prognosis of patients suffering from coma after cardiac arrest. Several studies have shown that this type of treatment increases survival and improves the neurological prognosis in such cases. ” It also destroys a large number of lesions, from wart to tumor.

An Australian study published in the Journal of Physiology in 2016 also highlights the benefits for endurance athletes, since the cold stimulates the production of the PGC1 molecule, which promotes the development of mitochondria, kinds of energy powerhouses of cells. These researchers also recommend that elite athletes take a cold bath one hour before going to bed to promote sleep by lowering their core body temperature.
Wim Hof, aka The Iceman, a Dutchman known for running a half marathon on the Arctic Circle in shorts and barefoot and snorkeling under the polar ice without a wetsuit, boasts for his part his extreme method combining breathing exercises and meditation in the cold to control his immune system.