Three times a week during the off-season, veteran NFL safety Will Allen has his body flash-frozen. For the three-minute session, which he does at Cryohealthcare in Beverly Hills, the liquid nitrogen-cooled air, brought down to about 250 degrees, swirls around his body in the form of a fine white vapor. "After the second shot of air, I'm like, 'This sucks,'" Allen says. "And then I get used to it. I'm going into my 10th season. I need something legal to help me maintain."
The ice bath has been a fixture in team training rooms for years, but by taking cold to extremes, whole-body cryotherapy, advocates say, tamps down inflammation in a frozen flash, reducing soreness and recharging the entire system to handle intense muscle-quivering workouts. "The extreme temperatures stimulate the skin and the subcutaneous flesh into releasing anti-inflammatory chemicals, cytokines like interleukin 10," explains Dr. Jonas Kuehne, an L.A. physician whose Cryohealthcare practice is heavy on celebrities and athletes, including Allen.
Long a staple of European spas and sports teams, cryo use has risen in the U.S. in the past few years, propelled by celebrity success narratives. Kobe Bryant described his cryo experience in Germany as "an unbelievably intense feeling." Jason Kidd said it was a secret weapon the Dallas Mavericks used (they later bought a unit) en route to their 2011 NBA championship.
In this country, the dominant player is Dallas-based Millennium Ice, which has sold its cozy, one-person, Ukrainian-style canisters (your head sticks out) to the Mavs, the Knicks, and to Nike in Beaverton, Oregon, where distance-running guru Alberto Salazar and trainees like Olympic champion Mo Farah do their three minutes after workouts. A new company, KryoLife, is set to open a flagship deep freeze in Midtown Manhattan this fall.
At their "beta" test facility in Tenafly, I enter their gleaming new unit. Inside the chamber, it feels cold but it's not as unpleasant a shock to the system as being submerged in an ice bath. (According to Kuehne, this is because air doesn't conduct cold nearly as efficiently as water. Otherwise, I'd be dead by now.) The cold doesn't have long enough to penetrate deeply, as the body shunts blood from the extremities to the core to protect the inner organs. (On the heels of his four-year doping suspension, American sprinter Justin Gatlin made the mistake of doing cryo in damp socks before the 2011 World Championships. He got frostbite and failed to qualify for the finals in the 100-meter dash.)
Session over, I hit the exercise bike for the required 10-minute warm-down. I feel good, and I'm not alone. "They just give me so much more on the field the next day," says trainer Matthew Uohara, who works with Allen and other pro athletes during their off-seasons.
While lab research has established that cryo is able to decrease inflammatory markers, Alan Donnelly, a professor of exercise physiology at the University of Limerick, Ireland, says he didn't see any functional improvements in his cryo study, no decrease in muscle soreness or increase in strength. It is possible, of course, that the cryo lift may be less in the muscles and more in the head. "All of the subjects in our study raved about it," Donnelly allows. "They thought it was fantastic."