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Br J Sports Med doi:10.1136/bjsports-2011-090061
  • Review

Cold water immersion and recovery from strenuous exercise: a meta-analysis

  1. Glyn Howatson1,5
  1. 1School of Life Sciences, Northumbria University, Newcastle, UK
  2. 2Physiology, English Institute of Sport, UK
  3. 3Sports Rehabilitation, St Mary's University College, Twickenham, UK
  4. 4Sport and Exercise Sciences, Liverpool John Moores, Liverpool, UK
  5. 5Centre for Aquatic Research, University of Johannesburg, South Africa
  1. Correspondence to Jonathan Leeder, School of Life Sciences, Northumbria University, Newcastle NE1 8ST, UK; jonathan.leeder{at}eis2win.co.uk
  • Accepted 8 August 2011
  • Published Online First 22 September 2011

Introduction

Elite-level athletic training and competition is accompanied by the recovery of a series of physiological stressors. The physiological stress will vary considerably depending upon the specific exercise type, duration and intensity and also on the athletes' familiarisation to the exercise insult. It is well documented that when the exercise stress incorporates a novel eccentric component or the exercise is of considerable intensity or duration,1 athletes will likely experience numerous signs and symptoms of fatigue and cellular disturbance that have the potential to reduce performance.

Physiological stress induced by intense exercise is associated with energy substrate depletion, hyperthermia, mechanical muscle damage, oxidative stress, inflammation and nervous system fatigue. The resulting symptoms manifest as reduced performance potential, likely due to increased muscle soreness and decreased muscle function,2 disturbed muscle position sense and reaction time3 as well as increased stiffness and swelling that can last for several days.4 The aetiology of reduced performance potential will vary depending upon the exact physiological stress being recovered from. For example, eccentric exercise is associated with a large mechanical stress and relatively low metabolic cost,5 whereas intermittent sprint exercise may involve both a large mechanical stress and a heightened metabolic cost.6 It is possible that the underlying time course of recovery between different exercise stressors is different, and this consequently may influence how recovery strategies could be implemented. For the purpose of this review, exercise will be subdivided into two categories: ‘eccentric exercise’ that refers to the stress caused from exercise incorporating high mechanical stress (eg, eccentric contractions) and ‘high-intensity exercise’ that refers to stress caused from exercise with a high metabolic cost as well as some elements of eccentric muscle contractions (eg, repeat sprint sports).

Given the potential for physiological stress to compromise training and/or competition performance, there has been …

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