Cooling after exercise has been investigated as a method to improve recovery during intensive training or competition periods. As many studies have included untrained subjects, the transfer of those results to trained athletes is questionable.
Therefore, the authors conducted a literature search and located 21 peer-reviewed randomized controlled trials addressing the effects of cooling on performance recovery in trained athletes.
For all studies, the effect of cooling on performance was determined and effect sizes (Hedges’ g) were calculated. Regarding performance measurement, the largest average effect size was found for sprint performance (2.6%, g = 0.69), while for endurance parameters (2.6%, g = 0.19), jump (3.0%, g = 0.15), and strength (1.8%, g = 0.10), effect sizes were smaller. The effects were most pronounced when performance was evaluated 96 h after exercise (4.3%, g = 1.03). Regarding the exercise used to induce fatigue, effects after endurance training (2.4%, g = 0.35) were larger than after strength-based exercise (2.4%, g = 0.11). Cold-water immersion (2.9%, g = 0.34) and cryogenic chambers (3.8%, g = 0.25) seem to be more beneficial with respect to performance than cooling packs (−1.4%, g= −0.07). For cold-water application, whole-body immersion (5.1%, g = 0.62) was significantly more effective than immersing only the legs or arms (1.1%, g = 0.10).
In summary, the average effects of cooling on recovery of trained athletes were rather small (2.4%, g = 0.28). However, under appropriate conditions (whole-body cooling, recovery from sprint exercise), postexercise cooling seems to have positive effects that are large enough to be relevant for competitive athletes.
The authors are with the Institute of Sports and Preventive Medicine, Saarland University, Saarbrücken, Germany.