The truth behind cryotherapy and extreme workout recovery methods

A capsule of subzero liquid nitrogen awaits me, so thick, it resembles a large mysterious witch's cauldron while a buff looking bloke coaxes me to step inside in nothing but my undies, special gloves and socks.

All my senses say bolt, this is ridiculous. He gives me a gentle shove into the cauldron, where my body visually evaporates into the dry ice, frozen to minus 103 celsius. I'm to remain standing for three minutes.

This is 'cyrotherapy', billed as "a non-invasive treatment that'll leave you feeling like you've had a massage and a few coffees in the space of three minutes."

It's just one of a number of new, quirky post-workout devices that promise to accelerate recovery time and maximise your gym efforts after you've done the heavy lifting.

But are they gadgets or gimmicks?

Frozen to better health

By minute three, I burn and shiver with coldness. I jump out, and growl a deep, guttural, involuntary groan as my body adjusts to room temperature.

For the rest of the day, though, I feel alert, stimulated and energetic.

I'm at Sydney's KOA Recovery clinic and Shaun (the buff bloke) swears by this treatment: "It speeds recovery by 50 per cent, burns up to 800 calories per session, boosts metabolism and improves sleep" he tells me in between my wolf-man growls.

However, fitness expert and PT Ethan Hyde isn't convinced these treatments are worth the $79 per session they cost: "Cryotherapy is making headlines at the moment. It works by rapidly cooling the body to decrease swelling, inflammation, increase blood flow and much more. All that can be done with a $4 bag of ice and bath tub. If an ice bath isn't your cup of tea then cryotherapy is great. I'll stick with an ice bath for now."


Shaun tells me you'd have to spend "much longer" in the ice bath to get the same effect so I know which I'd rather choose.

The Pain Pod

This small contraption promises big benefits. It bills itself as using "drug-free, pain relief technologies that harness the body's bioelectrical system to moderate pain levels, accelerate recovery and increase performance."

When I used it, my body responded immediately. The pads send intermittent electric currents through your body to stimulate circulation and massage the muscles. It's an uncomfortable, bordering on unpleasant, experience. But then, so are some massages. It's the after-benefits that count. Several top Aussie athletes extol its virtues, although that's the job of a paid brand ambassador.

It encouraged a bulbous pulsating of muscles down my leg, even at the lowest intensity, which you can adjust. I handed it to my flatmate and my partner to try to see if I was being a wimp. Their reaction was identical: a hilarious howl for every series of (what feels like) small electric shocks. It seems an aptly named device.

CEO of PainPod Rick Rowan explained: "The science isn't new. "Physios are embracing the ease of use of our technology, which helps them with efficacy of treatment." As for the shocked whoops of three grown men? "Everyone has a different level of sensitivity", he assures me.

The Firefly

The Firefly targets your lower body. A different electrical muscle stimulation product, it's aimed to reduce DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) in the most common DOMS hotspot – quad muscles. Founder Shane McLeod promises it can "speed up DOMS recovery from up to 72 hours down to 20 hours."

I'm unlikely to feel these effects myself though. The contraption needs to be fitted into a (very) particular place on the fibula bone (behind the knee) and is only working properly when the current makes your foot twitch. I fiddle for ages with it but can't get this to happen.

McLeod is aiming the device at the triathlon and CrossFit markets, but also at recovery centres, who'll no doubt be able to affix it better than clumsy clots like me.

The expert's verdict

Ethan Hyde says the vibration devices are better than mere circulation boosters, but nothing beats the human hand.

"Vibration massages are highly undervalued. A simple handheld massage device can revitalise a muscle in minutes. Most circulation boosters or anything on an infomercial isn't worth your time or money. You want something tried and tested by physios. A lot of these gadgets are great but they shouldn't replace physicians," explains Hyde.

Tegan Haining was David Beckham's PT and adds: "It's often not the gadget which doesn't work, it's that people think they can just use it a couple of times and it'll work miracles. Before buying gadgets you should see a physio who'll advise what your body actually needs."

Float therapy

On float therapy, however, both experts are unanimous in their praise. Haining says: "Float tanks are also an excellent recovery tool, they not only boost your magnesium levels but greatly reduce stress on the body as it's just so relaxing. However you need to be ok in confined spaces."

Hyde agrees: "Everyone should visit float therapy once per month. It's not only great for the body but for the mind also. As the mind relaxes, the body follows."

I step into my float therapy tank – like a large adult womb, and a mini dead-sea where you experience the weightlessness of an astronaut – at the same KOA Recovery clinic where I was frozen in liquid nitrogen.

"One hour is the equivalent to four hours sleep – ideal for muscle repair", buff Shaun assures me. After 45 minutes of zen, I jump out.

The cold cyrotherapy has left me too enlivened to pretend I'm Buzz Aldrin for the final fifteen minutes. But I'll definitely be back.

Have you given some of the more outre therapies a go? Share your experience in the comments section below.