Are you killing it in the gym these days? Are your workouts on point? Have you been giving it your all in the box day in and day out? You might be finding that you are ultra-sore after your workouts, and that it’s taking you a while to recover. That could be an indication that it might be time to focus on your recovery.
Have you ever thought of taking an ice bath? To most, the sheer idea of an ice bath does not sound appealing. However, the benefits might actually outweigh the downside (being breathtakingly cold). Very few have described it as “fun”, but it might be worth it.
Ice baths, also known as cold-water immersion, have been used as an approach to improving or maintain health throughout history. In fact, the Egyptians had been treating injuries with cold since approximately 2500 BCE (N.B.). The Russians used ice baths in what is known as “contrast therapy” in medieval times to help people recover from a variety of ailments and to stay young. Now it’s used by all types, from weekend warriors to serious athletes as a post-recovery strategy.
WHAT IS AN ICE BATH?
An ice bath consists of immersing yourself in a cold bath between 10-15 degrees celcius for ten minutes. For people new to cold water therapy, it is normal to start with staying in for about 3 or 4 minutes and working your way up to ten minutes. If you are trying an ice bath at home, best practice is to buy 2-3 bags of ice and fill the rest up with cold water. Those well-versed in the world of ice baths say that getting past the first two minutes is the most difficult part, and then the submersion gets slightly easier.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF AN ICE BATH?
A difficult workout damages muscle fibers, in turn switching on an inflammatory response. This inflammation leads to increased muscle soreness and muscle fatigue. The body then typically needs adequate time to recover from the inflammation and stress that has been brought upon the body. The prevailing thought is that cold-water immersion helps enhance recovery from that stress and inflammation brought upon the body through exercise (Peake, 696).
One 2017 study on mixed martial arts competitors shows support for this notion. Participants in the experimental group were asked to do a cold-water immersion following a training session. The cold water immersion involved sitting in a 10 degree celsius bath for 15 minutes. When compared to those in the control group, participants in the experimental group showed reduced delayed onset muscle soreness, supporting the idea that combative sport athletes can benefit from an ice bath.
Research done with elite rugby players also points in this direction. During an intensive 3 week training camp, 10 players were assigned to cold water immersion. The players who did the cold water immersion displayed reduced fatigue and less soreness compared to their passive recovery counterparts (Tavares). Conditioning and gym sessions were kept the same between groups. This research lends further evidence to the idea that coldwater therapy assists with recovery.
Other evidence is less conclusive. Other research performed in 2018 concluded that although cold water immersion helps reduce muscle damage, it doesn’t reduce the inflammation associated with it (Siqueira, 9). This could be because the methods behind exactly how cold water immersion improves recovery isn’t actually yet fully understood.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF COLD SHOWERS?
Although ice baths are a common tool used for recovery, other cold methods can be used to reduce inflammation and soreness. Other methods would be cold showers, as well as whole body cryotherapy. A 2018 study that compared whole body cryotherapy to ice baths found that neither was better than the other when it came to aiding in the recovery process (Wilson). This suggests that what really helps in particular is the cold temperatures, and not necessarily how that is delivered. Some choose cryotherapy over an ice bath or a cold shower because the time requirement is much less to reap the same recovery benefits.
Scientists also compared active recovery to cold water immersion on recovery benefits. It showed there to be no difference in effectiveness between the two (Peake 703). Basically this means that active recovery and taking an ice bath both worked to improve recovery time. So although an ice bath works to improve recovery, it is important to note that there are other options to improve recovery besides the absolute physiological shock of an ice bath.
Any exercise-induced inflammation has the potential to hinder performance and extend recovery. If researchers could figure out a way to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness and inflammation as a result of training, it would be extremely valuable in terms of enhancing athletic performance. However when you put together all of the information available, most scientists agree: it can’t yet be concluded that ice baths are effective for recovery as the mechanisms behind it aren’t fully understood.
Some research supports the use of ice baths or cold water immersion for recovery, whereas others are simply less clear. That being said, there is also a large amount of anecdotal evidence in support of it. The best way to figure out if an ice bath can enhance your recovery is to give it a try. It’s way cold, and it’s a challenge, but it also might help you in your recovery and consequently, your training.
- Lindsay, Angus et al. “The Physiological Response to Cold-Water Immersion Following a Mixed Martial Arts Training Session”. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, vol. 42, 2017, pp. 529-536.
- N. B, & Freiman, A. “History of Cryotherapy”. Dermatology Online Journal, vol.11, no.2, 2005.
- Peake, JM et al. “The Effects of Cold Water Immersion and Active Recovery on Inflammation and Cell Stress Responses in Human Skeletal Muscle After Resistance Exercise”. The Journal of Physiology, vol. 595, no.3, 2017, pp. 695-711.
- Sequira, AF et al. “Multiple Cold-Water Immersions Attenuate Muscle Damage but not Alter Systemic Inflammation and Muscle Function Recovery: A Parallel Randomized Controlled Trial.” Science Reports, vol. 8, 2018, pp. 1-12.
- Tavares, F et al. “The Effects of Chronic Cold Water Immersion in Elite Rugby Players”. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 2018, pp. 1 - 23.
- Wilson, LJ et al. “Whole Body Cryotherapy, Cold Water Immersion, or a Placebo following resistance exercise: a case of mind over matter?”. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 2018, pp. 1-13.