This has been a trendy strategy used by many elite athletes, but is it really effective at enhancing recovery?
Just looking at the key factors involved in exercise and even more importantly training adaptations, cold exposure immediately following exercise doesn’t make much sense. Exercise is an inflammatory process that involves breaking down the body to build it up stronger. You want your body to go through this process and learn to adapt and rebuild fully, not block it with cold right away. You may feel good with the cold exposure, but that’s because you’re blocking the inflammatory molecules. Aside from the physiology, I think this article published in the Journal of Physiology summarizes the findings of cold water immersion following training on muscle adaptation quite well. See the summary of the key points below:
“The key findings were that cold water immersion (1) substantially attenuated long-term gains in muscle mass and strength, and (2) delayed and/or suppressed the activity of satellite cells and kinases in the mTOR pathway during recovery from strength exercise. We propose that regular deficits in acute hypertrophy signalling in muscle after cold water immersion accumulated over time, which in turn resulted in smaller improvements in strength and hypertrophy. The present findings contribute to an emerging theme that cold water immersion and other strategies (e.g., antioxidant supplements, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) that are intended to mitigate and improve resilience to physiological stress associated with exercise may actually be counterproductive to muscle adaptation (Peake et al., 2015).
This investigation offers the strongest evidence to date that using cold water immersion on a regular basis may interfere with training adaptations. No previous study has investigated the effect of cold water immersion on muscle hypertrophy after strength training.”
Away from the post-training adaptation window, I think cold exposure can be beneficial. It has shown to reduce inflammation, decrease cortisol, and increase testosterone. Alternatives that don’t seem to interfere with the adaptations are active recovery, foam rolling, and massage.