Tournament play for most sports can involve up to 3 competitions in one day for sports like rugby 7’s, collegiate volleyball, soccer, etc. In these situations, fatigue progressively accumulates throughout the day, and performance is almost certainly impaired in the later competitions. Therefore, coaches have a keen interest in facilitating recovery in their athletes between matches. A variety of post-exercise recovery modalities exist, but few have shown substantial effects on maintaining performance.
Cold water immersion is a recovery intervention that has gained popularity due to the perceived restorative effects reported by athletes. In general, athletes tend to feel that it reduces soreness and therefore may be useful for attenuating performance decrements in tournament play. The current body of research on the beneficial effects of cold water immersion on performance is unclear.
A new study published ahead of print in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance evaluated the effects of cold water immersion on recovery indices and performance in simulated rugby 7’s tournament match play. In a randomized, cross-over study design, 10 male rugby players were assigned to post-match cold water immersion for 5 minutes, or passive rest. The study spanned two tournaments on different weekends to allow for the cross-over trials in randomized order. Heart rate variability (HRV), specifically lnRMSSD, was used as an index of recovery, and was measured following the recovery intervention or control condition. During simulated match play, subjects performed a repeated sprint test which involved 6 second sprints with a change of direction and 15 seconds rest between intervals. Heart rate and sprint times were recorded.
The results showed that cold water immersion accelerated parasympathetic reactivation, consistent with previous research. Repeated sprint performance did not appear to change significantly between modalities, however the cold water immersion treatment resulted in higher mean and peak heart rates during the repeat sprint test. This indicates that sympathetic drive was higher for this condition compared to passive rest.
Though increased sympathetic drive did not contribute to improved performance on the repeat sprint test, the authors suggest that this may be due to the nature of the protocol. This particular test challenges more the neuromuscular system as opposed to the cardiopulmonary system. Thus, future research should seek to determine how performance in longer distance tests is affected by post-competition cold water immersion. Cold water immersion appears to be a useful recovery modality, although more research is needed to determine how it affects various indices of performance in team-sport athletes.
Douglas, J., et al. Parasympathetic Reactivation Aids Sympathetic Drive During Simulated Rugby Sevens. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. In Press.