The research here has looked at the impact that cold water immersion has on the physical performance of athletes and the way in which this immersion can impact on fatigue. The results showed that cold water immersion has a direct impact on the level of fatigue with those that have used cold water immersion will show less fatigue and will perceive themselves to be using less energy in achieving the same grip.
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The purpose of this practical experiment is to look in more detail at the use of cold immersion as a means of dealing with a variety of problems such as pain and trauma. The aim of this research is to look at how cold immersion can be used as part of the treatment of athletes (Bell, et al 1987).
Issues associated with cold immersion have many potential applications both in terms of dealing with injuries, rehabilitation as well as encouraging recovery from exertion in a relatively quick manner. The background literature will be drawn upon in relation to this issue, in order to focus on the precise information that is expected to be gleaned from the chosen laboratory report. However, it is important to note, at this early stage, that the main aim of the experiment undertaken here is to focus is on looking at the recovery of grip strength when an individual has their hands immersed in cold water. The subjects involved were not those with injuries and therefore the primary focus is on the impact that cold water immersion has on the grip of an individual where there is no injury present; the principle, however, could potentially have a broader application in the context of recovery following exertion, or where there is an injury present (Halvorson, 1990).
Sports related injuries have increased, in recent years, as more people are participating in recreational sports as well as an increase in opportunities to enjoy sports on a more competitive basis. With this in mind, the possible treatment of injuries or indeed the prevention of injuries is of increasing concern, not only to those who participate in sporting activities, but also to the National Health Service itself which is allocating an increasing amount of resources to treating those with sporting injuries which could have potentially been prevented or at least treated more immediately, without the requirement for medical intervention.
The treatment of cold water immersion is therefore seen as particularly relevant to this discussion, as it is a self-help treatment which could be undertaken by any individual, without the need for medical intervention. Furthermore, where there are particular signs of success in using this treatment, it may be possible for injury to either be prevented, or the impact of these injuries diminished, to such an extent that savings are made within the Health Service.
The experiment here looked at whether or not there is an effect on muscle fatigue, as well as considering the subjective impression that the individuals had over their fatigue, with the individuals undertaking handgrip contractions with cold immersion happening in between effective exercises (Johnson et al 1990).
Not only is the actual physical level of the grip looked at as part of the experiment, but also the perceptions of the individuals, as this is also thought to be an important aspect of treating sports’ injuries. By looking at the perceptions that an individual has about their own strength and ability to maintain a strong handgrip, as well as measuring the physical level of strength they are displaying, any discrepancies can be identified. This, again, presents a potential argument that individuals who have been treated in a certain way will perceive themselves to be in a better place, or more able to undertake sporting activity, even when it may not necessarily be reflected in their physical status.
In order to gain the relevant information from the experiment being undertaken here, it is first necessary to look at previous literature in the area of cold water immersion, with reference to both recovery time and recovery from injury. Much of the previous research which has focussed on sports rehabilitation has considered the success of various different sports rehabilitation programmes in relation to one particular area of injury, such as tendonitis related injuries. Moreover, when focusing on the ability of an individual to recover from such a sports injury, the literature typically takes a broader view than simply looking at one technique such as cold water immersion. For example, in the paper undertaken by Levy et al., in 2009, the focus is placed on five areas that would be relevant to recovery from a sports injury, namely confidence, coping, social support, motivation and pain, indicating that an individual’s ability to recover from a sports injury or to fend off fatigue would depend as much on surrounding factors and emotional issues, as it does on physical treatment (Levy, et al 2009).
In this context and applying this to the current research, it would be expected that looking at the perceived level of exertion being displayed by the subjects would offer information as to whether or not the general emotional strength of the individual has a bearing on the level of fatigue experienced and the reaction to cold water treatment (Halvorson, 1990).
Distinctions have been found in previous literature in this area in relation to the way in which professional athletes or those with a particular affiliation with a sport will undergo a recovery period, in comparison to individuals who simply participate in sports activities, from a recreational perspective. This would suggest that those primarily involved in rehabilitation from a recreational point of view will be focused more on the reduction of pain, rather than from the standpoint of enhancing performance. Bearing this in mind, it could be argued that the reaction to cold water immersion may well vary, depending on the underlying goals of those involved. For example, a professional athlete may be more motivated to ensure consistently strong athletic performances and will therefore be less likely to experience fatigue, whereas those who are more recreational in their attitude may be less likely to push themselves in terms of the level of exertion that they display.
All specific procedures were followed according to the Coventry University laboratory manual. The experiment involved 20 maximal handgrip contractions with a rest period of 20 seconds between each exercise, followed by 2 minutes of the hand being submerged in water which was either 5° or 20° temperature; then a further 20 maximal hand grips were used. A 20 minute rest period was then had while another group would undertake their exercise, before completing the exercise all over again. Throughout this process, the force being generated with each contraction was recorded, in order to gain an understanding as to whether the immersion treatment would improve the situation, or not. All of this is done without physical intervention from the tester at any point. By undertaking twenty separate periods of exertion and taking the average of each individual participant, it will be possible to gain an understanding of general trends associated with cold water immersion and the impact that this type of treatment can have on the regular activities undertaken by the individuals. Using both water immersion at 5° and 20° will also enable a meaningful comparison between cold water immersion and warm water immersion. Indeed, it could potentially be argued that any form of treatment may have an impact on the perceptions of the individual patient. In this case, averages were taken in order to allow for a meaningful analysis to be completed; however, it may be necessary to look at any instances of individuals who show unusual results, so as not to have the effect of skewing the overall results. It is also noted that a different set of individuals needed to studied, in the context of the impact of immersion in both cold and warm water and again this may have an impact on the results. Although both sets of individuals were subjected to the same test conditions and were asked to perform the test, both prior to and after exertion, so that the differential could be compared in a meaningful manner, this may be particularly relevant when it comes to the rate of perceived exertion, as perceptions are clearly more of an individual factor that will vary from person to person.
RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion) was also recorded to identify any difference between actual and perceived levels of fatigue). RPE was obtained for each individual, both before and after immersion in cold or warm water, depending on the individual being questioned. This was done as an overall figure, rather than after every individual immersion, as there were concerns that if the individual was asked several times about their perceived level of exertion, they would begin to answer without careful thought and simply respond based on their previous response, rather than as a meaningful assessment of the level of exertion displayed.
The results of the experiments are discussed here with graphical and quantitative representation included in the appendix. A total of 16 individuals (in 2 groups of 8) were used as part of the experiment involving both warm and cold water, with the level of exertion recorded throughout. When looking at the average level of exertion across all 20 grips and eight individuals (in total 160 results), the average before being immersed in warm water was not significantly higher than the average after being immersed in warm water, with a difference of just 0 .12; interestingly, the perceived level of exertion actually increased by a not particularly substantial 0.6.
When looking at the level of force being displayed by the eight individuals who immersed their hands in warm water, prior to the immersion, it could be seen that there was a relatively wide variance even among the subjects themselves, with one person showing an average force of 23.5 and another showing an average force of 50.05. However, when looking, in more detail, at the individual 20 different tests taken by these individuals, there was a relatively high level of consistency across each of the 20 grip tests. For example, the subject who showed the low average of 23.5 displayed the highest force of 27 and the lowest of 20, showing that the average of 23.5 was in fact a fair reflection of their own grip, albeit substantially less powerful than the other subjects in the experiment.
In contrast, the position in relation to those who had immersed their hands in cold water showed an increase in the level of the average force which increased by 1.7. There was also a trend in the perceived level of exertion, indicating that those individuals who had been immersed in cold water and who had a higher level of force after the immersion did not actually perceive themselves to be working any harder a statement which is supported by the earlier research undertaken by Tomlin and Wenger in 2001. This suggests that the immersion in cold water showed more consistent results when it came to the perception of exertion being used, with the subjects on average showing no fatigue. Despite this, only one of the subjects stated that they found no difference in the level of exertion between before and after immersion, with all other subjects showing either a slight increase or a decrease. On average, however, when looking at all of the subjects, there was no difference in the overall level of perceived exertion.
As was the case with those subjected to warm water immersion, all subjects showed generally a higher level of force, with one of the individuals showing an average force of 48.1, prior to immersion, and another showing 24.55, prior to immersion. This indicates that there were substantial variations amongst the subjects and, as such, taking averages was perceived as being the most appropriate method when looking at the overall impact of immersion, without having to take account of individual strengths and weaknesses.
The results produced during this laboratory experiment indicate that the use of cold water immersion can decrease the level of perceived effort, to such an extent that greater strength can then be displayed by individuals when completing a handgrip (Halvorson, 1990). This is despite the fact that the individuals undertaking the experiment did not perceive themselves to be using greater exertion, after their hands had been immersed in cold water. It also became readily apparent that immersion in cold water had an impact on the level of fatigue experienced and the ability of the subjects to recover from exertion. Despite the fact that the respondents said that they, on average, experienced no difference in the level of perceived exertion, there was a clear indication that they were able to display more force after immersion in cold water than they were beforehand which supports the findings of Sanders in 1996. Similar results were not shown in the case of warm water immersion and very little change was experienced in the actual level of exertion, and the perceived level of exertion actually increased. Applying this to the background literature and understanding, it could be seen that the main result ascertained from this laboratory experiment is that cold water immersion decreases the “normal” levels of fatigue and allows for quicker recovery, post exercise (Johnson et al 1979).
These results suggest that there is merit in the argument that the use of cold water immersion can improve athletic performance, as individuals are able to show greater strength and force, without increasing their level of perceived exertion. With this in mind, it is suggested that cold water immersion be explored, in greater detail, as a means of improving athletic performance. It is also suggested from these results that cold water immersion could have broader applications for the treatment of injury or pain, although the experiment here is focussed on the level of strength and impact on fatigue. Applying these findings, alongside the background understanding, allows this report to suggest that cold water immersion could be used as a means of treating sports injuries, or those suffering from muscle fatigue following sporting activity. As cold water immersion would ultimately allow an individual to recover from exertion at a quicker rate, it would then be possible to argue that the same physical benefits could be obtained during the use of the cold water immersion when dealing with the recovery from injury or, indeed, the prevention of injury, by reducing the level of fatigue experienced.
The laboratory experiment undertaken during this research looked specifically at the impact that water immersion has on an individual’s ability to grip forcefully, by looking at a set of individuals who immersed their hands in warm and in cold water. Through comparing the level of force that they were able to display, it was possible to ascertain whether or not any trends are emerging in terms of the level of fatigue experienced and how cold water immersion would have an impact on this.
It was found that those who had immersed their hands in cold water experienced less fatigue in their grip and, importantly, their own perception of exertion being exercised, thus indicating that it is not only the actual level of grip that increases, but also the fact that they perceived that their level of exertion had not changed during the test. It was concluded, therefore, that the use of cold water immersion can not only offer solutions for those experiencing fatigue, but also for those looking to increase the sustainability of athletic performance, over a longer period of time.
The results of this experiment also need to be considered in the context of the literature presented previously, which suggests that the level of recovery and reaction to fatigue may depend on the motivations of the individuals involved, with professional athletes being more likely to react positively to such activities.
References (other research looking at this issue is detailed below):
- Bell, A.T., Horton, P.G., 1987. The uses and abuse of hydrotherapy in athletics: a review. Athletic Training 22 (2), 115–119.
- Byerly, P. N., Worrell, T., Gahimer, J., & Domholdt, E. (1994). Rehabilitation compliance in anathletic training environment. Journal of Athletic Training, 29, 352-355.
- Halvorson, G.A., 1990. Therapeutic heat and cold for athletic injuries.
- Physician and Sportsmedicine 18 (5), 87–92
- Johnson, D.J., Moore, S., Moore, J., Olive, R.A., 1979. Effect of cold submersion on intramuscular temperature of the gastrocnemius muscle.
- Physical Therapy 59, 1238–1242
- Levy, A., Polman, R, Nicholls, A and Marchant, D (2009) Sports Injury Rehabilitation Adherence: Perspectives of Recreational Athletes. ISSP 7: 212:229
- Sanders, J. (1996). Effect of contrast-temperature immersion on recovery
- from short-duration intense exercise, Unpublished thesis, Bachelor of applied Science, University of Canberra
- Tomlin, D.L., Wenger, H.A., 2001. The relationship between aerobic
- tness and recovery from high intensity intermittent exercise. Sports Medicine 31 (1), 1–11
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