When it comes to sports recovery and pain relief, some people are going to extremes — extreme temperatures, that is. Check almost any Instagram feed (including mine) and you’ll probably find friends freezing in cryotherapy chambers or basking in the heat of an infrared sauna.
But beyond serving as selfie settings, both methods are highly effective for everything from soothing sore muscles and reducing inflammation to detoxifying the body and burning some serious calories.
What Is Cryotherapy?
Originally developed by a Japanese doctor to treat patients with arthritis, cryotherapy exposes the skin to subzero temperatures for three minutes. That exposure causes blood to leave the extremities and move into the core, where it is cleaned, oxygenated, and nutrient enriched.
“When the session is finished, your circulatory system is what I like to call ‘super charged,’ with blood moving through the body at a much faster rate,” explains Heather O’Neill, owner of Cryofit Alamo Heights in San Antonio, Texas. “This helps reduce inflammation and pain, decrease recovery time between workouts, and it releases endorphins for a big energy boost.”
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg (pun intended). Other perks include improved sleep, increased collagen production, and increased calorie burn (in the 400 to 800 range) that can last up to six hours postfreeze.
I began using cryotherapy regularly after a nasty spill on my bike resulted in bruised ribs and a sore shoulder. I’m not gonna lie: It takes some getting used to at first, but the results are well worth it. My aches and pains decreased dramatically after just one session. I was hooked.
When you enter the room, you strip down to nothing and put thick socks and booties on your feet and gloves on your hands. Women are instructed to cover their breasts with their hands, while men get a third sock for obvious reasons. You stand inside a capsule-like chamber with your head sticking out, which helps tremendously with anxiety or claustrophobia issues. For the next three minutes, music is piped in and a “coach” standing in the room tells you when to turn (every 30 seconds) and distracts you with conversation.
The price for cryotherapy ranges $40-$65 per session.
Infrared Saunas Are an Alternative
If you just can’t brave the cold, infrared saunas offer a warmer way to reduce inflammation, while removing seven times the amount of toxins from the body than a traditional sauna.
“If you are looking for a killer detox, this is it,” says O’Neill.
Unlike a traditional sauna that uses hot coals to heat the air, producing a dry, intolerable heat, an infrared sauna exposes the skin to far, near, and mid infrared waves. By penetrating the skin at three levels, infrared heat helps the body purge up to 30 percent of its toxic load at a heat that is more bearable.
“The infrared sauna gets very hot, but it’s a comfortable heat,” says O’Neill.
Like cryotherapy, the sauna is a good way to reduce inflammation, and it too burns an insane amount of calories — up to 600 in 30 minutes! Research has shown that an infrared sauna is a good way to help prevent high blood pressure and improve heart health. Perhaps that’s because it’s extremely relaxing and an excellent stress reliever.
“It hits all the ‘feel good’ chemicals in the body, increasing dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins,” says O’Neill, who adds that it is just as popular among busy moms seeking a little me time, as it is among athletes who use it for the recovery benefits.
The price for infrared sauna ranges $20-$30 per session.
Which Should You Choose?
For my personal workout recovery, I like to combine the two, using cryotherapy the day before a long run or bike ride, and going to the sauna the day after an event. Clinical trails have shown that cryotherapy is very effective in alleviating the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. There is less research on infrared saunas as a treatment for joint pain, but there is research that shows it provides relief.
“Both are excellent recovery tools for the body,” says O’Neill. “It really comes down to a matter of preference.”
Bonny Osterhage is co-founder and small-group trainer at BodyArchitecture Personal Training and Fitness in San Antonio, Texas. You can learn more about her at bodyarchitecturesa.com.