Are Ice Baths Really Worth It?

It’s a nice dry Friday morning and apart from this blog I’m taking the day off- the first lie in I’ve had in about 6 weeks…

Curse the body’s internal clock because I’m awake since 6 am!

I’m trying to build up the courage to go Christmas shopping and lets just say it’s a slow burning process.

I just got off the phone to a client who is trying to make the most of their recovery.

 

Ice therapy –

By that I mean using what are know as ‘recovery aids’.

He was asking about cryotherapy and in particular ice baths and whether or not they work to reduce muscle and joint inflammation.

Back in the early 2000’s up until now – ice baths were seen within sports science circles to enhance recovery by reducing inflammation in your muscles following a training session.

 

Research –

The research evidence behind its efficacy has always been…well…                          

Lets say, sketchy at best.

However the idea of ice water reducing inflammation seemed pretty obvious and believable so it took hold like any good sporting fad. 

The science now makes is even more suspect.

You see, while they may reduce markers of inflammation

The issue now is whether they fight the natural inflammation process too well!

Since post-workout inflammation is one of the signals that tell your muscles to repair, adapt, and thus get stronger too many ice baths in theory might actually reduce the natural adaptations from training.

 

Newer research –

Now there’s another plot twist to make things even cloudier, this research suggests that ice baths don’t actually do anything to fight post-workout inflammation.

They have pointed out that athletes need to distinguish the difference between swelling and inflammation- because they are not the same thing.

Inflammation is the body’s response to certain harmful stimuli, characterized by the likes of heat, pain, redness, and swelling.

This process involves the initiation of a huge variety of different cells and molecular signallers, and the ramping up of blood supply to the affected area, with the goal of fighting off pathogens or repairing tissue damage.

I won’t get too heavy into the entire range of biochemical markers they measured, as it’s major ‘sciencey’!

But I will give you the conclusion of the study.

Exercise, as expected, increased the cellular signs of inflammation (completely normal)—but there was no difference between a post-workout ice bath and a 10 easy minutes on a bike in alleviating these signs of inflammation!

 

So are they useless then?

At first glance, you might assume this means that the study is suggesting that ice baths are completely useless!

But that’s not necessarily the conclusion either – typical science.

These findings don’t change the fact that

(a) Many previous studies have found that ice baths do reduce perceptions of soreness and speed up the recovery of muscle function

(b) Some studies have, conversely, found that long-term use of ice baths interferes with training adaptations.

Whatever the exact mechanism, it’s definitely worth trying to figure it out—because that’s how we’ll figure out the best way to balance short-term recovery gains with long-term training adaptations, but for now the use of ice baths is one of those taboo areas that we really don’t fully understand.

 

My advice?

If you find that ice baths help, I’d say work away and keep using them—but consider periodizing their use – i.e. during an intense taper period.

Or on a stage race or event.

It may be wise to use them sparingly during the winter or periods where maximal adaption to training is key because the mechanism may in-fact interrupt the adaption mechanisms.

If you don’t like ice baths, or have never used one, there is very little compelling evidence to start using them now.

Get your nutrition in and get comfy’s on.

A. Buggle

About the Author

Help-Desk