Cryotherapy: How Ronaldo’s icy treatment has become red hot in football
Cristiano Ronaldo routinely plays as if he has ice in his veins, so one of the secrets of his tremendous longevity should come as no surprise.
The evergreen Manchester United superstar, who turned 37 in February, recently posted an Instagram video clip that showed him stripping down to his pants before entering a freezing-cold chamber in Dubai.
He was undergoing a recovery and rehabilitation treatment called cryotherapy, something he has practised regularly since 2013.
The Portugal icon even has a £50,000 cryotherapy chamber installed in his rented mansion, according to reports.
But he is not alone in the football world in indulging in this cold-blooded pursuit.
So what exactly is cryotherapy and what are its benefits?
Dr Adnan Haq, a Sport and Exercise Science lecturer at the University of South Wales, tells GOAL: “The term cryotherapy can be ambiguous and is used loosely, but can be an umbrella term for any cold treatment, including ice packs and cold-water baths.
“When many people use the term cryotherapy, they are specifically referring to whole-body cryotherapy (WBC), which involves exposure to extremely cold air, below -100°C, for typically three minutes – this is colder than the coldest recorded temperature on Earth.
“Due to the extreme nature of WBC, many people feel that it will offer superior results compared to conventional means. The body undergoes a big physiological shock when faced with extreme environments. It is about harnessing the body’s responses to such extremes to react in a unique way to accelerate recovery.
“When we also see high-profile cases of footballing success, such as Leicester City winning the 2015-16 Premier League at 5,000/1 odds partly due to WBC use to support players’ recovery, the treatment becomes difficult to ignore. Athletes are constantly looking for those cutting edges to make the difference between winning and losing.
“In the case of WBC, several athletes have found it beneficial when taken, post-exercise, to accelerate that recovery, thereby enabling them to train and perform again in a timely manner at a sufficiently high intensity.
“An important benefit is the treatment of exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD). Work that I published last year revealed that single treatments of WBC can effectively mitigate muscle strength reductions after muscle-damaging exercise. Alleviating muscle damage can therefore speed up recovery.”
Ian Saunders, the CEO of CryoAction, which supplies whole-body cryochambers to a host of leading football clubs and other sporting organisations, first became aware of cryotherapy when he learned of the Welsh rugby team’s use of the practice in Poland.
The tech entrepreneur travelled to the Eastern European country to explore cryotherapy for himself, and discovered that cryochambers were widespread at medical centres and sports organisations.
Explaining the growing popularity of cryotherapy among footballers, he tells GOAL: “Cryotherapy is a much-preferred option for many footballers to the dreaded ice bath. The preference is that the session lasts only three minutes, they remain dry, and yet the effects are long-lasting.
“For the players, most report that they feel completely refreshed, energised and some way down the road of recovery from the exertions of training or a match day.
“They also report a far deeper and long-lasting sleep pattern. Most players are overstimulated and have poor sleep patterns. Cryotherapy helps to increase dopamine and serotonin levels, so contributes towards a healthy sleep recovery.”
Leicester City were CryoAction’s first customer and their purchase paid off in spectacular fashion six years ago.
The Foxes have recently installed a newer cryotherapy chamber at their training ground as they seek to recapture their former glories, according to Saunders.
He reveals that the club’s talismanic striker Jamie Vardy, who was an integral part of the triumphant 2016 squad, has emulated Ronaldo in having a chamber installed at his house.
Saunders says: “The club adopted cryotherapy as part of their amazing recovery from near relegation in the 2014-15 season. Using a full-time unit in the 2015-16 season, the club’s medical staff deployed a number of new or emerging modalities, many of which have now found their way into common use across a number of clubs.
“One of these was the access to the cryotherapy chamber which was in near-daily use and sometimes twice daily.
“Then head physio, David Rennie, who is now at Bristol City where they installed their own CryoAction cryotherapy chamber last year, said, ‘We get big hormonal changes from the players, big changes in moods, and obviously the big thing from my side of things, from rehabilitation, is the ability to shut down a lot of the acute soft tissue injuries much faster than we would have been before’.
“The club attributed the success of the season down to keeping their best players in the game, and the players were therefore able to undertake more coaching sessions and produce the improvements on the pitch.
“Testimony to this fact is that in the 2015-16 season, Leicester City had fewer injuries than any other PL club and used the fewest players. This enhanced performance and a different playing style, with the club scoring more counterattacking goals than any other Premier League club that season.
“The impact of all these elements combined led to the amazing success of the club in that historic season.”
Saunders says Watford, Everton, Bournemouth, Arsenal, Rangers, Wolves, Southampton, Swansea City and Bristol City are among the clubs which have since jumped on the bandwagon and taken delivery of his firm’s cryochambers.
“We are certainly finding that more and more players are driving their clubs to get a chamber for their use at clubs, particularly those individuals that have a known injury issue that they have to manage,” he says.
“A number are also taking the step of getting their own installed at home so that they can use it when they like as part of their own health-management programme.
“Players such as Cristiano Ronaldo are seen as a benchmark for others who want to emulate his success and aspire to have as long a career at the top of the game as he has enjoyed. We are seeing youth players acquiring chambers in order to follow his example.”
As ever with medical matters, there are conflicting opinions about cryotherapy. For instance, a 2021 study led by academics at Liverpool Hope University questioned its effectiveness.
However, Dr Haq insists that, on the whole, cryotherapy is something leading footballers should be using to boost performance and aid recovery.
“The research, both by myself and overall, for the most part indicates that WBC has beneficial effects for sports recovery and performance. There are, however, caveats.
“It is, of course, very expensive, and it can be argued that cold-water baths are just as effective yet cheaper. In the professional sporting scene, this might not be an issue, but it’s still important to consider since one cryotherapy chamber can cost six figures in installation alone.”
Saunders agrees that the chambers are not cheap – his cost from £60,000 upwards – but explains how they are becoming more accessible to grassroots footballers.
“This is as a result of more facilities opening up in gyms and training centres including cryotherapy as part of their upgrades, where a focus on recovery is now as important as the focus on strength and conditioning.
“It is not that an individual grassroots club would buy the unit directly, but we already have cases where clubs are using our clients’ sites for their team, post-game or training sessions.”