Precooling methods and their effects on athletic performance : a systematic review and practical applications

Sports Med. 2013 Mar;43(3):207-25. doi: 10.1007/s40279-012-0014-9.


Background: Precooling is a popular strategy used to combat the debilitating effects of heat-stress-induced fatigue and extend the period in which an individual can tolerate a heat-gaining environment. Interest in precooling prior to sporting activity has increased over the past three decades, with options including the application (external) and ingestion (internal) of cold modalities including air, water and/or ice, separately or in combination, immediately prior to exercise. Although many studies have observed improvements in exercise capacity or performance following precooling, some strategies are more logistically challenging than others, and thus are often impractical for use in competition or field settings.

Objective: The purpose of this article was to comprehensively evaluate the established precooling literature, which addresses the application of cooling strategies that are likely to enhance field-based sports performance, while discussing the practical and logistical issues associated with these methods. We undertook a narrative examination that focused on the practical and event-specific application of precooling and its effect on physiological parameters and performance.

Data sources: Relevant precooling literature was located through the PubMed database with second- and third-order reference lists manually cross matched for relevant journal articles. The last day of the literature search was 31 January 2012.

Study selection: Relevant studies were included on the basis of conforming to strict criteria, including the following: (i) cooling was conducted before exercise; (ii) cooling was conducted during the performance task in a manner that was potentially achievable during sports competition; (iii) a measure of athletic performance was assessed; (iv) subjects included were able bodied, and free of diseases or disorders that would affect thermoregulation; (v) subjects were endurance-trained humans (maximal oxygen uptake [[Formula: see text]O(2max)] >50 ml/kg/min for endurance protocols); (vi) cooling was not performed on already hyperthermic subjects that were in immediate danger of heat-related illnesses or had received passive heating treatments; (vii) drink ingestion protocols were used for the intended purpose of benefiting thermoregulation as a result of beverage temperature; and (viii) investigations employed ≥ six subjects. Initial searches yielded 161 studies, but 106 were discarded on failing to meet the established criteria. This final summary evaluated 74 precooling treatments, across 55 studies employing well trained subjects.

Study appraisal and synthesis methods: Key physiological and performance information from each study was extracted and presented, and includes respective subject characteristics, detailed precooling methods, exercise protocols, environmental conditions, along with physiological and performance outcomes. Data were presented in comparison to respective control treatments. For studies that include more than one treatment intervention, the comparative results between each precooling treatment were also presented. The practical benefits and limitations of employing each strategy in the field and in relation to sports performance were summarized.

Results: Clear evidence of the benefits for a range of precooling strategies undertaken in the laboratory setting exists, which suggest that these strategies could be employed by athletes who compete in hot environmental conditions to improve exercise safety, reduce their perceived thermal stress and improve sports performance.

Limitations: This review did not include a systematic assessment of the study quality rating and provided a subjective assessment of the pooled outcomes of studies, which range in precooling methodologies and exercise outcomes. The wide range of research designs, precooling methods, environmental conditions and exercise protocols make it difficult to integrate all the available research into single findings.

Conclusion: Most laboratory studies have shown improvements in exercise performance following precooling and the emergence of strategies that are practically relevant to the field setting now allow scientists to individualize relevant strategies for teams and individuals at competition locations. Future research is warranted to investigate the effectiveness of practical precooling strategies in competition or field settings.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Athletic Performance / physiology*
  • Cold Temperature*
  • Humans