Here’s a sports trivia question for all our athletically-inclined readers:
What do the Dallas Cowboys, the Golden State Warriors, the Chicago Cubs, The Manchester United Football Club, and Michael Phelps all have in common?
You might see this lineup and think “Well, the 1992 Dallas Cowboys won the Superbowl. The Golden State Warriors won the NBA Finals in 2014. The Chicago Cubs made history when they won the 2016 World Series. Manchester United is one of the most honoured Football Clubs in the world. And Michael Phelps has won more gold medals than any other Olympian in history… They’re all winners!”
But that’s not all they have in common: they also all used float tanks.
They weren’t alone, either: the New England Patriots, UFC Hall of Famer Royce Gracie, the Chicago Bulls, Olympic Gymnast Aly Raisman, the Philadelphia Eagles, Olympic Gold Medalist Carl Lewis, The Detroit Pistons, as well as literally hundreds of other professional athletes have incorporated float therapy into their training and recovery programs throughout the years.
Floating is one of the best-kept secrets in high-performing athletes and there’s some interesting research that helps explain why.
Floating Raises the Performance Ceiling
If someone told you that laying in the dark on a bed of saltwater could give you superhuman strength or speed, would you believe them? It may not be as far-fetched as it sounds.
One study found that high-level athletes who have plateaued – those who don’t see any additional benefits from more training – would see an improvement in performance after floating in conjunction with visualization techniques, even without additional training.
Put another way, athletes were able to increase their peak performance just by floating before a competition. A follow-up study not only confirmed this result but also showed that floating multiple times between games led to significant improvements over a single float! This demonstrates something that most floaters already know: the more you float, the better it is for you.
Beyond general athletic performance, a few studies looked at more specific benefits of floating in athletes.
Several studies tested how floating affects marksmanship. All 3 studies had a float group and a control group, with participants from all skill levels.
In a marksmanship study, 75% of participants had a statistically significant increase in accuracy comparing pre-float to post-float. This increase was not found in the control group using relaxation without floating. A similar effect was found in a darts study, with 80% of participants seeing an improvement. It’s worth noting that in both studies, these improvements were seen regardless of skill level.
While an archery study didn’t see any significant increase in accuracy, it did show that the float-group had more consistent scores than the non-float group. This was something that the other two studies found as well.
Float Therapy Reduces Recovery Time
While the benefits we describe above could be explained as a side effect of stress reduction, there is more to the story of the impact of float therapy on physical performance. Certainly not enough to explain why floating has been so popular among high-level athletes.
Based on earlier research, scientists have started using biometrics to examine athletes who float on a physiological level. A 2013 study looked at the effect floating has on lactic acid build-up.
Lactic acid is associated with the post-workout feeling of tightness in your muscles. This causes your body to get stiff and sore. Pro athletes are always looking for ways to reduce the amount that builds up during a workout to maximize performance.
What has been found is that if you float after exercise it provides a 62% reduction in lactic acid buildup on average. This is in comparison to a control group from the same study. Participants reported feeling less pain and were back at peak performance sooner.
A follow-up study in 2016 was able to replicate this effect with a larger sample size over 9 different sports. Not only were they able to replicate the lactic acid reduction, but they also found a significant reduction in muscle soreness, improved mood, and reduced fatigue in those that floated.
Looking at the Whole Picture
When you take all of these effects together, you can start to see why floating has been one of the best-kept secrets of successful athletes. If considering the stress-reduction benefits as well, you can see how floating might help them be at the top of their mental game.
The best part about all of this? Floating is helpful for athletes at every level. You don’t need to be an Olympian to see the benefits of floating in your exercise. It can be a nice way to cool down after a jog or help you recover after playing in a local league game on the weekends.