In August, when 2004 Olympic gold medalist sprinter Justin Gatlin arrived at the World Outdoor Track and Field Championships with frostbite on his feet, an obscure recovery technique called whole-body cryotherapy (WBC) entered the spotlight. The therapy, which involves standing in a cryosauna—a shower-sized metal chamber that’s pumped full of nitrogen-gas-cooled air, lowering the ambient temperature to minus 160 degrees Fahrenheit—is one of the trendiest in sports: everyone from running coach Alberto Salazar to the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks have experimented with it. Gatlin had, too—but this time he entered the cryosauna wearing wet socks.
The therapy, developed in Japan in the 1970s, has been promoted for everything from quicker injury recovery and decreased muscle soreness after exercise to, paradoxically, increased sexual stamina. And thanks to a proliferation of cryosaunas—Millennium Ice, the largest company offering them in the United States, has more than a dozen throughout the country—amateur athletes are signing on at $75 a pop. The idea is that the brutally cold air will cause blood to flow out of the skin and muscles as the body uses that heat to protect its core, thereby reducing muscle inflammation. But the science is still catching up with the hype. The latest study on WBC, published in July, found that a key protein that marks muscle damage stayed at the same levels in patients who were treated with WBC after an intense workout but spiked in those who didn’t receive the therapy. The question now is whether inhibiting inflammatory signals could actually be worse for an athlete
“We know nothing about the long-term effect of cryotherapy, nor its effect on the training response,” says François Bieuzen, a scientist at France’s National Institute of Sport, Expertise, and Performance and a coauthor of the study. “But this therapy can be useful during an event like the Tour de France, where the main objective is to limit fatigue rather than continue to improve.” As for increased libido, it’s probably best to stick with the little blue pill.