The Science Behind Ice Baths

For some years now there’s been one thing that seemingly every elite sports person does to help their recovery. Whether it be rugby players bloodied and battle scarred, tennis players cramping up after a monumental five sets, or endurance athletes following an epic day in the mountains. This ‘go-to’ would be sure to leave the athlete feeling fresh and ready to go the next day, reducing the dreaded delayed onset muscle soreness that follows a heavy training session. That method? Ice baths.

Now, if you’ve ever sustained a sporting injury- and the chances are that in preparation for RunForLove, you’ve had a niggle here or there- the advice has probably been to ice it. So the logic goes that if it’s good for an injury, surely it must be good to repair all the micro-damage that long training rides and runs do to your muscles. And that would seem to make sense, but is there more to it?

The Good.

Both anecdotally and scientifically, ice baths do leave athletes feeling fresher. In the NBA, cryotherapy, or rapid cooling of the skin, has been used even before matches to make player feel ‘light’ and ready to go. The literature also backs this up with researchers showing that ice baths can reduce muscle soreness. Rapid cooling after exercise lowers core body temperature, which takes strain away from the heart and reduces central nervous fatigue. They also deal with the micro-tears, muscular damage and inflammation brought on by exercise. A 2015 meta analysis, the highest form of research, looked at a range of scientific papers that have studied the effect of ice baths on reducing muscle soreness, and found that 11-15 degrees C for 11-15 minutes seems to be the best protocol to go for.

The Bad.

Improving your recovery may not be good for your improvement. Well, at least using ice baths for recovery may not be. That’s because ice baths eliminate the soreness and damage that actually act as stimuli for your body to adapt and become stronger after training. Researchers suggest that the cold may prevent chain reactions that lead to the adaptations you are striving for in training. In short, ice baths may inhibit your gains.

What to think?

The ugly truth is that there’s no simple answer. Because of the different protocols, populations and even types of exercise used by the scientists investigating ice baths, it’s hard to reach a solid conclusion. The key message is don’t just use an ice bath for the sake of it! Know when it may help or hinder you:

  • Ice baths may blunt your adaptation to training so you might want to avoid them after training, instead allowing your body to heal itself
  • Ice baths may leave you feeling fresh and ready to go after a long day of running or riding, so should be considered when recovery is all important

Ice baths are just one of a number of recovery tools in your toolbox, and as with them all it is the application, not the tool itself that is crucial its effectiveness. We’ll have a look at other recovery methods you might consider, such as compression clothing, foam rolling and nutrition in future posts…stay tuned!

James is a Sport and Exercise MSCi student at the University of Bath, training and competing in triathlon, running and cycling. James’ work lies in improving endurance sport performance through the application of science.

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