BOXING RECOVERY: WHAT'S BEST FOR YOU?
Image - SAA Imaging
by Geoff Minett
Boxing: the noble art. An athletic discipline whereby a unique intertwine of physicality, strategy and technique are prerequisites to success. A sport in which fitness and training discipline is a stereotype – a badge that is worn with pride.
So what if in the process of such diligent training practice, a common recovery method may actually be holding you back?
Enter the humble ice bath. Adored by few and hated by most. It may come as a pleasant surprise to many then that they now have legitimate reason to question taking the plunge.
A recent study led by Australian researchers, in collaboration with colleagues from Norway and New Zealand, have poured cold water on the concept. Indeed the work published in the Journal of Physiology reports regular cold water immersion to blunt resistance training adaptations.
The authors asked participants to complete a lower-body resistance training program twice per week for 3 months and after each session exposed them to a 10 min ice bath (10˚C) or an active recovery (low-intensity cycling).
Findings suggest that the weights program was successful in improving lower-body strength and muscle size in both conditions. However, and most importantly, these changes were markedly less in those volunteers who completed the ice bath trial.
Reasons why are a little more complicated. Cooling the exercised muscles to reduce blood flow and inflammatory processes has been suggested to be a positive means to reduce soreness and hasten performance recovery. Yet it seems that this same process is also lessening physiological stressors that have important roles in to play in evoking adaptive processes within the muscle.
So that’s it then. No more cold torture ever again. Or is it?
Just when you thought it was safe to reason with your coach as to why the ice should be put back in the freezer, think again. The interactive effects of post-exercise recoveries and training adaptations appear to be exercise specific.
As evidence of this, researchers from the Australian Institute of Sport recruited a group of cyclists to simulate elements of a 3 week Grand Tour. In this study, volunteers in the ice bath condition completed a 15 min immersion (15˚C) four times per week, while the control group undertook no form of hydrotherapy recovery.
In contrast to the above mentioned resistance training study, the paper published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise details overall slight but positive gains in cycling performance. After an 11 day taper following the training block, changes in 1 sec maximum mean sprint power (4.4% ± 4.2%) and mean power in a repeated 4 min maximal effort (3.0% ± 3.8%) were interpreted as likely higher in the ice bath condition.
Benefits of ice bath recoveries on subsequent aerobic performance have been argued to be largely psychological (i.e. the placebo effect), but there is also evidence that cold stimuli enhances gene expression that could alter muscle glucose uptake.
Now that the evidence is as clear as mud, what does this really mean? And how might this influence your recovery decisions as a boxer?
What is obvious is that just as with your training program, your choice of recovery protocol should be specific to your training goals. Remember, recovery is not a one-size-fits-all approach.
These early findings would suggest that using an ice bath is fine, perhaps even advantageous, for cardiorespiratory fitness improvement. That said, the opposite applies is adaptations in strength and muscle size is your primary goal.
Given that successful boxers typically display well-developed fitness characteristics in all areas (i.e. cardiorespiratory, muscle strength and power), how might you interpret these findings? For mine, the key is to periodise and prioritise.
Feeling flat and fatigued and need to get yourself up a fight – dive on in. When training adaptations are your number 1 goal, the conservative view would be to avoid cold recoveries or at most use them sparingly.
Roberts, L. A., Raastad, T., Markworth, J. F., Figueiredo, V. C., Egner, I. M., Shield, A., … & Peake, J. M. (2015). Post-exercise cold water immersion attenuates acute anabolic signalling and long-term adaptations in muscle to strength training. The Journal of Physiology, 593: 4285-4301.
Halson, S. L., Bartram, J., West, N., Stephens, J., Argus, C. K., Driller, M. W., ... & Martin, D. T. (2014). Does hydrotherapy help or hinder adaptation to training in competitive cyclists? Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 46(8), 1631-1639.
Minett, G. M., & Costello, J. T. (2015). Specificity and context in post-exercise recovery: it is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Frontiers in Physiology, 6, 130.
Geoff Minett PhD CSCS is a Lecturer in Exercise Science at Queensland University of Technology and has a Doctorate of Philosophy Exercise & Sports Science. Geoff has worked in Strength & Conditioning and as the Recovery Coordinator with the Western Region Academy of Sport in NSW and the South Australian Cricket Association.