The dial reads -135°C. I’m about to step into a cryochamber swirling with dry ice that’s colder than any natural environment on Earth. If I believe the hype, the next three excruciating minutes will transform me into some kind of superbeing. My muscles will be revived and recharged, allowing me to train again sooner and harder, and I’ll achieve new peaks of strength and speed as a result.
I did a punishing gym workout yesterday and, instead of leaving the usual four or more days before repeating my session, to test the claims I plan to do exactly the same exercises today after a visit to the cryotherapy chamber.
The reported benefits have seen sportsmen in increasing numbers using the icy treatment as part of their training. The Welsh rugby team famously have used it ahead of the 2015 Rugby World Cup campaign. And the chamber I’m about to step into at the Champneys Health Spa in Hertfordshire has been visited by Jessica Ennis, Theo Walcott, numerous Spurs players, F1 driver Mark Webber and Alice Cooper (yes, that one).
I’m on edge, fearful of the shock this is going to inflict on my body. Previously, I’ve jumped into near freezing water, and sat in cold baths while preparing for a marathon. Neither was pleasant, but those involved temperatures with a reassuring ‘+’ in front of them.
Now I’m about to spend 40 seconds at -85°C and three minutes at -135°C, dressed in special clothes to protect vulnerable areas: two pairs of socks, leggings, two pairs of towelling shorts (vital, those), gloves, forearm sleeves and a headband. My torso is bare.
Cold, hard facts
Cryotherapy is certainly in vogue among athletes, but not everyone’s convinced it actually makes you stronger. “Randomised studies have shown cold water immersion (the ice-bath equivalent of cryotherapy) is better than doing nothing after sport because it reduced muscle soreness by 10-15%,” says Dr Chris Bleakley, a sports scientist at University of Ulster Sports Academy. “But it doesn’t have a significant effect on other measures of sporting performance.”
In his research, Bleakley says, muscle power and other markers showed no real improvements that were directly attributable to cryotherapy. “It leads some people to conclude that it’s reducing subjective measures such as muscle soreness – but it doesn’t have a big effect from that.”
That doesn’t fill me with confidence as the dry ice envelops me. I try not to think of Han Solo going into carbonate and force myself to focus on those athletes who swear by this treatment. If it helps them to train harder and more often then it could work for me too.
The experience is a pleasant surprise. It’s very cold, of course, but it’s not like the body-paralysing, breathtaking shock you get when you jump into freezing water. The plunge here is more subtle: my skin temperature falls to 5°C but it happens gradually. After 40 seconds at -135°C I start to shiver, teeth chatter, ice begins to form on my arm hairs.
After two-and-a-half minutes I definitely want to get out, but it isn’t the frostbitten torment I was expecting. If I had the choice between this and 10 minutes sitting in an ice bath, I’d take the cryochamber every time.
During my post-cryo workout, I feel strong. I’m able to replicate my training programme from the day before. However, I can also still feel the muscle soreness from yesterday and repeating the same exercises feels possible, but not really sensible. My body still needs a rest.
That said, if you’re upping your training and combining it with other suitable recovery methods (a good diet, sleep, stretching) then evidence, from my own teeth-chattering experiment and those of the sports science world, says it will help you deal with the increase in intensity.