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Ice baths…better left in the ice age

Ice baths…better left in the ice age

Author: Colleen Gulick, Ph.D (ExPhys), MS, BS (BioE), EIT (ME), CSCS

Many of us have memories of fall preseason practices that ended with you holding your breath while you hesitantly lower yourself into a plastic tub filled with belly button high ice water.  We were told that they would help with recovery, so we begrudgingly climbed into the ice bath in the name of performance. But do ice baths really work or are they a recovery strategy that is better left in the ice age?   

What are ice baths SUPPOSED to do?

Ice baths are intended to be utilized after a workout that is intense enough to produce muscle soreness or damage.  They are usually taken within two hours of the conclusion of exercise and are supposed to reduce muscle soreness and expedite the recovery process.  There are a variety of protocols but most involve somewhere between 5 to 15 minutes, seated in belly button height water (with legs submerged) that is between 50 to 59 F. 

What happens physiologically during an ice bath?

By shunting blood and inflammatory cells away from injured tissue, ice baths adhere to the same principle as when you ice an injured muscle.  The cold water signals blood vessels to constrict.  This results in a rush of blood away from your extremities and towards your core as a survival mechanism to protect your vital organs.  The reduction of blood flow in your extremities slows the inflammatory response (and swelling) in those regions.  Plus, the ice can serve as a temporary numbing agent for painful or sore areas.   

In addition to the temperature, the hydrostatic pressure (pressure of the water) acts on the body parts that are submerged in water.  The compressive forces force fluid from the extravascular space into the vascular compartment.  This further helps to reduce inflammation and the exercise-induced increase in muscle volume. 

Do ice baths actually work?

Kind of.  An ice bath’s usefulness is dependent upon the circumstances.  When it comes to assessing new treatment methods there is a natural inclination to believe that if a treatment is painful, then it must be helpful.  So, the discomfort associated with ice baths can lead us to believe that they are effective.  While ice baths DO make blood vessels constrict, this construction is not always helpful.  The acute response an athlete experiences when sitting in an ice bath can actually do more harm than good.  The reduced blood flow to the extremities can reduce the delivery and uptake of post-exercise dietary protein, thereby decreasing muscle protein synthesis rate.  This can significantly hinder post-exercise recovery and muscle growth (1).  When ice baths are utilized repeatedly over time (one study used 7 applications over 2 weeks), they resulted in lowered myofibrillar protein synthesis rates and reduced skeletal muscle conditioning (1).  Thus, cold water immersion can blunt resistance training-induced muscle growth.  Therefore, if your goal is muscular hypertrophy (muscle growth) then you may want to consider removing ice baths from your recovery plan.    

Hold on, don’t be so quick to throw away the ice trays just yet. When applied in certain situations ice baths can be productive.  After a hot workout where you have the potential to overheat or in the treatment of heatstroke, ice baths can and should be an option.  However, these guidelines are different from standard recovery practices. In these situations please consult your medical professional for heatstroke recommendations and treatment.  


If I want to take an ice bath, what is the best protocol?

For individuals who are determined to continue their ice bath rituals, there are some general guidelines that will make your experience as effective as possible.  When it comes to cold water immersion, longer isn’t better. A 10 minute ice bath produced the same results as a 20 minute ice bath (2).  The general guideline is to be immersed for no more than 12 minutes.  The temperature of the bath should be between 55 and 65 F.


Putting it all together...

While ice baths were a sideline staple of yesteryear, as science evolves, so too must our recovery practices.  In a hot environment where there is the potential for heat stroke, consulting a healthcare professional to devise a treatment plan may be appropriate.  However, when creating a daily post-workout routine, there are better options when it comes to recovery than an ice bath.  Implementing a cool down with dynamic stretches, post-exercise protein and hydration are likely to be far more effective in the long term.