In the high heat of summer, it’s tempting to want to jump right in an ice cold bath after a long hot, run. The question is, what ice bath benefits can you reap? We’ve seen coaches and therapists use both hot and cold water therapies in the realm of recovery for decades, but which option is really ideal for recovery? We turned to an expert and seasoned runner to find out.
- Best Recovery Tools
- Hot or Cold: What’s the Best Way to Shower After a Workout?
- The Basics
- The Pros
- The Cons
- The Best Solution
- What is an ice bath?
- How do ice baths work?
- What is contrast therapy?
- Do ice baths reduce inflammation?
- Can ice baths improve sports performance?
- When should you take an ice bath?
- How long do athletes sit in ice baths?
- Are there any risks of taking an ice bath?
- What’s the best way to recover after a really hard workout?
- Muscle Soreness – Is Cold Water Immersion Effective For Treatment?
- Ice Baths: Are They Really as Effective as We’ve Been Led to Believe?
- Skip the coffee, jump into an ice bath instead.
- How to use your bath to boost your post-workout recovery
- Should you break the ice?
- Turning the heat up
Ice Bath Benefits
It doesn’t take a scientist to realize that hot versus cold therapies are like night and day, so of course they provide different benefits.
One simple way to offset the risks inherent to long bouts of running is cold-water immersion—known to many runners as the ice bath—or cryotherapy. Cold therapy constricts blood vessels and decreases metabolic activity, which reduces swelling and tissue breakdown. Once the skin is no longer in contact with the cold source, the underlying tissues warm up, causing a faster return of blood flow, which helps move the byproducts of cellular breakdown to the lymph system for efficient recycling by the body, explains Robert Gillanders, D.P.T., and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association, who has nine Boston Marathons under his belt.
“When I’m actively trying to manage my recovery, I’ll balance my harder effort days with cold water,” Gillanders says. “Being strategic with days is your most sensible plan. An ice bath on your most intense days makes sense.”
For someone experiencing inflammation from an effort or injury or if you’re looking to prevent injury, cold-based therapy is an effective part of a recovery plan. You’ll experience decreased muscle soreness, which is not only good for feeling better sooner, but it also preps your muscles better for the next workout. What’s more, research published in the Journal of Physiology has shown that cold-water therapy can help you recover faster on strength-training days as well.
Heat Therapy Benefits
Heat, on the other hand, offers some recovery benefits to the body as well. There is less scientific evidence here encouraging the use of heat, but soaking in a hot tub is not frowned upon by experts. Heat can aid in muscle relaxation and create changes on a cellular level, allowing fluids to flow more freely through your body. Warm water also increases the temperature of your muscle tissues making it easier to stretch (this is why hot yoga is a thing). It’s a similar sensation to why you might be able to touch your toes after a run when your muscles are warm and but not before.
That said, there’s a time and a place for heat. If you’re recovering from an injury, steer clear of heat, as the body has a tougher time dealing with it, says Gillanders. He recommends that you save heat therapy for less-intense workouts. The sweet spot is 102 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 to 15 minutes. That temperature is higher than your average body temperature, so you’ll get the benefits of heat recovery.
Which is Best for Recovery?
While there are some benefits to heat therapy, runners will benefit the most from ice baths and cold therapy. The body of science suggests that even though the impact of cold immersion post-workout can be minimal, it can do some good. “Cold wins out here,” says Gillanders. “At the end of the day, we’re trying to prepare our body for the next workout, and cold is another brick in rebuilding after recovery with sleep, diet, hydration, stretching, and .”
However, it’s worth noting that if you’re aiming for visibly bigger muscles, postworkout ice baths might not be your best bet. A recent study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that immersing yourself in cold water after resistance training didn’t result in any visible muscle growth. But if you are more focused on simply increasing your strength and power, these factors weren’t affected by ice baths and cold showers.
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When and How to Use Cold Therapy
Though you could use individual ice packs, cold-water immersion generally produces a greater and longer lasting change in deep tissues and is a more efficient means of cooling large groups of muscles simultaneously. But if the sound of submerging your body in ice cold water makes you want to run the other way, we’re with you. Luckily, you don’t actually have to. To see benefits from cold water immersion, all you really need is water at 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit to see the same benefits as if you were in that ice bath. “The water doesn’t have to be full of ice,” Gillanders says. “It just has to be cool.”
In fact, that’s why even with the “warmer” temperatures suggested, Gillanders suggests only soaking for 10 to 15 minutes max. Otherwise, the cold can do damage to your skin. You might also notice that when you exit the ice bath, your legs feel stiff. Don’t worry, that’s normal. That’s the cold working on repairing the trauma to your tissue on a micro-level, and you’ll feel much better the next day.
Gillanders recommends this recovery to be included on your harder workout days whether in the gym or logging heavy or muscle-burning mileage. This should be paired with other recovery methods such as proper rehydration, a healthy diet, and stretching for maximum benefits.
To make the ice bath experience more tolerable, fill the tub with two to three bags of crushed ice, then add cold water to a height that will cover you nearly to the waist when seated. Before getting in, put on a warm jacket, a hat, and neoprene booties if you have them, make a cup of hot tea, and collect some entertaining reading material (perhaps the latest issue of Runner’s World?) to help the next 15 minutes fly by.
Andrew Dawson Gear & News Editor Drew covers a variety of subjects for Runner’s World and Bicycling, and he specializes in writing and editing human interest pieces while also covering health, wellness, gear, and fitness for the brand.
Hot or Cold: What’s the Best Way to Shower After a Workout?
Have you heard of recovery showers? Apparently, there’s a better way to rinse off after an intense workout-one that boosts recovery. Best part? It’s not an ice bath.
The concept of a “recovery shower” is alternating temperatures from hot to cold. Is this an effective way to stimulate circulation and aid in muscular recovery? “There is no yes or no answer to this question,” said Dr. Kristin Maynes, PT, DPT. “We all have to remember that every person’s body is different and may react to certain therapies differently.” That said, she totally recommends recovery showers.
“Yes, it can be an effective aid to muscle or injury recovery; however only for someone without an acute injury,” she told POPSUGAR. So as this is a great general method for recovery, keep in mind that if you’re dealing with an injury, you’ll need to discuss this with your own physical therapist. “If there is no injury, it speed up the recovery process, keep the body mobile, and prevent stiffness.” Here’s how the recovery shower works:
“After a workout, you want to start off with cold-an ice bath or cold shower-to aid in the decrease in inflammation of muscles, joints, and tendons,” said Dr. Maynes. Exercise inflames these parts of your body, and as she put it, “it’s unhealthy to be in an inflamed state for prolonged periods of time.”
The cold water locally decreases blood flow, reducing inflammation, stiffening the muscles and joints – thus decreasing pain (just like icing an injury). This is “very important for immediate recovery and works well in the acute stages of injury or right after a workout,” she said. “It is like a ‘pause’ button in the healing process to decrease the body’s quick response to injury, which can be very painful at times.” (Related: The Benefits of Cold Showers Will Make You Rethink Your Bathing Habits)
Then switch to hot. “This will improve muscle and joint recovery to flush out all the build up of inflammatory cells, dead cells, scar tissue build up, etc. to improve the health of the bones.” Going from cold to hot also helps with potential stiffness. You know how you sometimes can’t walk after leg day? Try a cold-to-hot shower. “This can also aid in the improvement of mobility of body structures so stiffness does not set in,” she said. “This is very good to use in the subacute and chronic stages of an injury.”
That said, if you’re injured, she stressed that this is not the way to recover. “You do not want to use heat in the first few days up to a week of an injury,” so avoid this kind of recovery shower.
The Best Workout Recovery?
Post-workout recovery is essential, and it varies for everyone. “If you are active in aiding your recovery after an intense workout stretching, foam rolling, yoga, etc., then adding an alternating hot shower or an ice bath is going to help,” said Dr. Maynes. “Find out what works best for your body whether it be a hot shower, ice bath, or both; stick to it and it will help you.”
But be patient! “Nothing works in a day; you have to do it more than once to see an effect.”
This article originally appeared on Popsugar Fitness
More from Popsugar Fitness:
This Is Exactly What Happens to Your Body When You Don’t Take a Rest Day
9 Things You Should Be Doing After Every Workout
Pro Recovery Tips from an Olympian
- By POPSUGAR Fitness @POPSUGARFitness
Kalika adds that an ice bath’s ability to bring down excessively high core temperatures could be especially beneficial for runners in hot, extreme conditions who are at risk of overheating or suffering from heat stroke. While the body regulates and brings down its core temperature on its own, ice baths help do it faster than normal.
Another group that may get more out of ice baths include runners who have a couple races scheduled close together and need to recover, like, yesterday, Julie Khan, P.T., D.P.T., a physical therapist specializing in sports injuries at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, tells SELF. Despite the debates on the long-term benefits, simply icing sore muscles can help them feel better in the moment and reduce swelling—like using an ice pack. While Khan says she has personally used ice baths on occasion and says they have helped her “legs feel a little better after a long run,” she notes that the research is weak here, too.
When it comes to anything fitness, you can’t discount the power of the mind.
“The data is up in the air, but I will tell you that with working with high-level and elite professional athletes, recovery doesn’t just deal with neuromuscular properties and objective statistical analysis, but a large part of recovery is also the neural or psychological perception of recovery,” Jonesco says. “What I mean is that if you look at some of the data that’s out there, cold water immersion can improve the perception of recovery, which may actually help the athlete recover faster and can aid in actual recovery.” Even if it’s just mental, when feeling better helps you perform better the next day, that’s worth something.
In fact, 2017 research published in the journal Temperature found that post-cooling techniques such as ice baths were effective at decreasing subjective—but not objective—ratings of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). And, according to Kalika, people who believe that ice baths work may stand to reap greater benefits than those who are skeptical.
If you want to try ice baths to see if they help you, go for it. Just make sure you’re not overdoing it.
Until researchers get their act together and can give us a clear “yes” or “no” on ice baths, the best way to figure out if they will work for you is to simply try them out, Khan says.
Immediately following your workout (ideally a long or particularly hard run), Jonesco recommends soaking your body from the hips down in a bathtub filled with 50-degree water. That’s the temperature that some studies have linked to improved recovery. Set your timer for 10 minutes or less, and know that colder temps and more time soaking do not mean better benefits.
“Longer durations of decreased blood flow to the lower extremities can actually lead to less gain in pain relief and potentially prolong neuromuscular recovery,” Jonesco says. After all, your muscles need some blood to recover, and while curbing excess inflammation might be beneficial, your body requires a certain amount of post-workout inflammation to kickstart the recovery process and help you come back stronger.
What’s more, while you’re in the tub, it’s important that you listen to your body and get out if anything feels “not quite right,” Jonesco says. He explains that frostbite and, in extreme cases, seizures are potential side effects of exposure to intense cold. Sure, 50 degrees doesn’t sound that cold, but the body loses heat far faster in water than it does in air, so you just need to be aware and avoid overdoing it.
To keep from getting too cold, Khan recommends keeping your upper body covered, and wearing socks can also trap and warm some of the water around your feet, just like the wet suits that divers wear. Since it’s not a bad idea to have a bath time buddy supervising you during your first few times, you can also go ahead and wear underwear or shorts on your bottom half.
Over time, if you feel like you’re getting worthwhile benefits from your ice baths and feel comfortable soaking solo, go for it. If ice baths just aren’t doing it for you, skip them. There are plenty of other—more scientifically sound—recovery methods for you to try.
Often times, we see “behind-the-scenes” footage of our favorite athletes dipping into an icy bath to soothe their sore muscles after a big game or intense workout. While this might seem like a great way to relieve your post workout aches and pains, you might want to get all of the facts before trying it for yourself. At Coastal Orthopedics, we are dedicated to making you feel your best, that’s why we’ve listed out everything you need to know before taking the icy plunge.
Many times directly after working out, we feel tired, but not sore. It’s not until we wake up the next day that we feel as though we were run over by a freight train. This is known as delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS. It causes muscle stiffness, swelling and soreness. Many athletes try to combat this delayed pain by taking an icy bath after an intense workout.
In a typical ice bath, the temperature in the water is generally around 50 to 59 degrees, and athletes can soak for up to 20 minutes at a time. The bath is believed to not only numb pain but also constrict the blood vessels. This will limit the amount of swelling and prevent future pain.
The main pro of an ice bath is reducing muscle pain. The cold temperatures numb the pain and prevent your muscles from future soreness. In addition, some researchers believe that the water acts as a light compression, aiding in your bodies blood circulation. This can help your muscles by moving out waste products like lactic acid.
Besides the obvious con of freezing your butt off, many believe that there isn’t enough research to support taking an ice bath. While they have been shown to reduce pain, it has only been proven that they are better for your muscles than doing nothing at all. Other methods such as taking Ibuprofen or wearing a compression sleeve have been proven to be just as effective, if not more so, than taking an ice bath.
Also, immersing yourself into an ice bath could actually have negative affects on your health. Using an ice bath, especially without the supervision of a trained athletic physician, can cause increased heart rate and even shock. On top of this, the long-term side effects of ice baths have not yet been studied. There is no way of telling what other potential hazards an ice bath could pose to your health.
The Best Solution
The bottom line is, for the every-day athlete, an ice bath is probably not the best solution for sore muscles. Stretching after working out will greatly reduce any pain you might have. If this still isn’t enough, try an Ibuprofen to prevent muscle stiffness and swelling. For isolated muscle pain, alternate ice and heat packs, in cycles of 10 minutes each, to reduce pain.
At Coastal Orthopedics, we want you to feel your best. If you have any other questions regarding muscle pain, call today to find out how we can help you.
Taking an ice-cold bath may sound painful, but some believe it’s one of the easiest, quickest ways to soothe post-workout pains.
“Ice baths have been around for a while, and they’re picking up steam and popularity,” says Nick Clayton, C.S.C.S., program manager for the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Although ice baths may soothe sore muscles, they aren’t for everyone—and could be counterproductive depending on your fitness goals.
What is an ice bath?
Also called cold water immersion, ice baths are a form of cryotherapy that call for sitting in chilly water, ideally up to your chest, for 10 to 15 minutes. There’s no need to freeze to get the full benefit–anywhere between 50 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit works. Just be prepared that it’s not exactly pleasant.
“The first time you get in, it takes your breath away. It’s quite an experience, but after 5 to 10 minutes it gets easier, especially if you breathe and relax,” says Clayton. “The first few times it’s super uncomfortable and painful, but you do build up a tolerance.”
Mike Reinold, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist and the former head athletic trainer for the Boston Red Sox, says he recommends this method for all athletes.
“Ice baths help people move and feel better, which can help them to recover,” he says.
Javier Snchez Mingorance / EyeEmGetty Images
How do ice baths work?
Ice baths reduce inflammation and improve recovery by changing the way blood and other fluids flow through your body. When you sit in cold water, your blood vessels constrict; when you get out, they dilate (or open back up). This process helps flush away metabolic waste post-workout, says Clayton. That’s especially true with lymph, a clear fluid made up of white blood cells and fluid from your intestines, he explains.
While your heart constantly moves blood around your body, your lymph nodes don’t have a pump. Ice baths constrict and open vessels manually, which helps stagnant fluids in your lymph nodes move throughout your body. Increased blood flow also floods your cells with nutrients and oxygen to theoretically help your body recover, adds Clayton.
In addition, Reinold and Clayton believe ice baths prepare you for other difficult conditions.
“From a mental standpoint, you’re challenging your body by being exposed to different stresses and stimuli, which makes you more resilient and prepares you for different challenges in the future,” Clayton says.
What is contrast therapy?
Contrast water therapy is a cryotherapy alternative that switches between cold and warm water baths. Research suggests it’s as effective as ice baths for temporary pain relief.
“We do a bunch of contrast therapy because people like it,” says Reinold. “When you’re in an ice bath and hop into a hot tub your entire body tingles for 30 seconds, so you perceive you’re getting something out of it.”
Do ice baths reduce inflammation?
Some research suggests ice baths may reduce soreness after workouts. A 2018 metanalysis of 99 studies looked at the effectiveness of several recovery methods—including contrast water therapy, massage, and ice baths—at reducing delayed onset muscle soreness, perceived fatigue, muscle damage, and inflammation after physical exercise. It found that ice baths and massages were the most at lowering inflammation. What’s more, massages were best for reducing muscle soreness and fatigue.
Clayton notes the research on ice baths is mixed. A small 2017 study found ice baths weren’t any more effective than active recovery in reducing inflammation and recovery time. And a 2012 review of 17 studies found that ice baths weren’t more effective than active recovery in reducing muscle soreness.
Plus, ice baths may hinder your muscle gains, says Clayton. A pair of small 2015 studies found that men who used cold water therapy versus active recovery had smaller long‐term training gains in muscle strength.
“The damage after a workout signals the body to build up that area more. When you take out that signal, you don’t have that stimulus for growth,” says Clayton. “Even though you’re reducing inflammation, it might not have a positive effect on your workouts.”
Can ice baths improve sports performance?
Post-game ice baths won’t make you a better athlete. “If you work out and jump in an ice bath, your performance isn’t going to be better the next day,” says Clayton. “You’ll feel better, but it’s more perceived than anything else.”
That said, ice baths have a positive effect on the central nervous system, which helps you sleep and feel better. This, in turn, may improve your reaction time and explosiveness in future workouts.
One caveat: Ice baths may improve performance if you take one before working out on a hot and humid day.
“If you’re doing a cross-country race in Florida, icing before your race has been shown to reduce the effects of heat and humidity and improve your performance,” says Clayton.
Simply hop in an ice tub just before a race or game for about 20 minutes to drop core body temperature by a couple of degrees.
Hoxton/Ryan LeesGetty Images
When should you take an ice bath?
So far, there’s no time period that’s shown to be most effective. However Clayton says the sooner you can hop in the ice after an intense workout or game, the better. “If you work out and then wait an hour, a lot of those healing processes are already happening, so they’ll have a different effect,” he says.
How long do athletes sit in ice baths?
A 2016 meta-analysis of ice bath studies found that athletes experienced the best results after soaking in water temperatures between 10 and 15 °C (50 to 59 °F) for 10 to 15 minutes.
If you’re attempting this at home, be sure to check the tub’s temperature using a thermometer. While you can just ice your legs or arms, it’s best to submerge your entire body, so more vessels contract to flush out greater quantities of metabolic waste.
Are there any risks of taking an ice bath?
Clayton says people with high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease should check with their doctors first. Hypothermia is also a potential risk if you sit for too long.
What’s the best way to recover after a really hard workout?
Ice baths aren’t necessary, but they may help you recover just a bit faster. If you have access to a cold tub (and you actually enjoy the experience), go ahead and soak a couple of times per week. When he worked as a trainer, Clayton used his gym’s cold plunge and warm tubs once a week after yoga.
“It felt good and I’d sleep like a baby that night,” he says. “But if you do it every time after you work out, you won’t maximize the benefits of your workout.”
Otherwise, there are more pleasant ways to speed up recovery, like massages, which Reinold says are the most effective method.
If you can’t swing regular massages, active recovery—light stretching, foam rolling, or dynamic range of motion exercises like yoga—is as effective as ice baths.
But the hands-down, best way to recover is also the easiest: eating and sleeping well.
Replenishing lost nutrients will counter the stressed “fight or flight” reaction that naturally occurs after a hard workout.
“The sooner you can get into a more relaxed parasympathetic state, the better it is for recovery,” says Clayton.
Colleen de Bellefonds Colleen de Bellefonds is an American freelance journalist living in Paris, France, with her husband and dog, Mochi.
Muscle Soreness – Is Cold Water Immersion Effective For Treatment?
A recent study, published in The Cochrane Library, reveals that after exercise, a cold bath may be an effective way to prevent and help sore muscles. However, the researchers are not positive whether there may be dangerous side effects that could affect the person later on.
Cold water and ice baths are popular among athletes, both amateur and professional, when they are trying to reduce their sore, swollen, or stiff muscles. This is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOSM). Experts believe that immersing in cold water, also called cryotherapy, helps with reducing inflammation in muscles – and the pain that comes with it.
Researchers set forth to determine whether this method actually works, by analyzing 17 small trials, with 366 volunteers. After resistance training, cycling, or running, these volunteers were asked to immerse themselves into a cold water bath. Most of the people stayed in the water 24 minutes, with the water temperature at 10 to 15 degrees Celsius. During some of the trails, the water was colder, and the participants were asked to go in and out of the baths at certain times.
The trials that compared resting after exercise, instead of the cold water baths, showed that the cold water baths proved to be much more effective in helping sore muscles 1-4 days after exercise. There were only a few studies comparing the cold water baths to other methods of treating the muscle soreness.
Champion weightlifter Karyn Marshall, taking an ice bath
Lead author of the study, Chris Bleakley, from the Heath and Rehabilitation Sciences department at the University of Ulster in Country Antrim, Northern Ireland commented:
“We found some evidence that immersing yourself in cold water after exercise can reduce muscle soreness, but only compared to resting or doing nothing. Some caution around these results is advisable because the people taking part in the trials would have known which treatment they received, and some of the reported benefits may be due to a placebo response.
There may be better ways to reduce soreness, such as warm water immersion, light jogging or using compression stockings, but we don’t currently have enough data to reach any conclusions about these interventions.”
It is difficult for researchers to determine exactly how much cold water immersion helps sore muscles, because of the wide variety of different temperatures, exercise, and timing that the different studies used. Also, the amount of evidence that there are possible side effects to the cold baths was inconclusive, due to the fact that most of the studies did not report any bad side effects. The researchers say it is necessary for more studies to be done in order to be sure of the effectiveness of cold water baths in treating muscle soreness.
“It is important to consider that cold water immersion induces a degree of shock on the body. We need to be sure that people aren’t doing anything harmful, especially if they are exposing themselves to very cold water for long periods.”
Written By Christine Kearney
Ice Baths: Are They Really as Effective as We’ve Been Led to Believe?
Ice baths are thought to help with muscle recovery, inflammation, and a host of other things, but the evidence isn’t exactly all there. Image:
Editor’s Note: This feature is part of The Inertia‘s Health and Wellness Spotlight, an initiative that explores emerging trends in nutrition, diet, and fitness in surf and outdoor culture. We’ll be releasing a feature each day this week with your health in mind, so check back here daily. Unequivocally, excellent health enables more time to fully enjoy the ocean and outdoors. This initiative is powered by our friends at Vivobarefoot. Check out The Inertia’s 2019 Health and Wellness Product Guide here.
Ice baths have been around for a long time. Athletes routinely sit in a tub full of the frozen stuff after a workout for a variety of reasons, including muscle recovery, inflammation, the apparent neurological benefits, and even to help them sleep better. Many superstars, like surfers Kelly Slater and Laird Hamilton, tennis phenom Andy Murray, and heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill, swear by the ice bath—and given their successes in their respective endeavors, one might safely assume that ice baths are indeed beneficial. But are they really, or is it merely a case of herd-mentality placebo effect? Numerous studies have found that taking the plunge may, in fact, not be quite as good as the general public has been led to believe.
Before we get into the debunking research, let’s break down what, exactly, ice baths are thought to do to the body. According to Elizabeth Quinn, an exercise physiologist who has been working with athletes for over a decade, the general theory behind them is related to something called microtrauma. When you exercise, your muscles develop tiny tears in them. While that may sound bad, it’s not. In fact, it’s what makes you stronger, and it has a name: muscular hypertrophy. When your muscles repair those microtears, they come back bigger and stronger than before. Unfortunately, muscular hypertrophy comes along with a pesky little side effect that makes you stiff and sore. Ice baths are often used to reduce inflammation of those sore muscles, which, as anyone who has ever held a bag of ice to a pulled muscle knows, works wonders.
Ice baths constrict the blood vessels, which flushes the lactic acid out of the tissues and reduces the swelling. Then, when the athlete gets out of the ice bath and begins to warm up again, blood rushes back in and kickstarts the muscle recovery process—or that’s the theory, anyway.
Now, for those of us just looking for a quick fix to a sore muscle, ice is a great thing. But if you’re a professional athlete looking for long-term solutions to build muscle or reduce joint issues, it may be a bad thing. See, according to the study, a little inflammation might be necessary—it is, after all, our body’s natural response, and sometimes suppressing those responses isn’t a good idea.
In 2013, the United States Army conducted a study looking into the effects of reducing inflammation. “Since inflammation causes pain, decreases skeletal muscle function, has a negative effect on performance, and contributes to fibrosis, which is one of the leading causes of delayed regeneration, the general practice has been to reduce inflammation,” the authors of the study wrote. “The problem with this approach is that preventing inflammation may hinder recovery.”
The Army study looked at whether or not the “most beneficial course of treatment should be to block inflammation or if it is sensible to allow inflammatory processes to progress naturally.” They, like the previous study noted, made it clear that so far, there’s no real hard data that backs up the ice bath theory. “To date,” they wrote, “there is no clear message with regards to the effect and mode of action of anti-inflammatory interventions and how they can best promote muscle healing and functional recovery.”
While the Army study did go on to state that there probably are benefits, getting rid of inflammation altogether isn’t the best route to take. “The opinion here is that the therapy should not be to obliterate the inflammatory response, but instead to restore the normal regulation of inflammatory processes,” the study concluded.
Still, some people swear by them. Depending on who you ask, ice baths are beneficial for far more than just your muscles. “Beyond helping you recover better from training,” explained fitness guru Brian Mackenzie, “it hits a neurological reset button, similar to when you take a 15 minute, deep REM cycle nap. You also tap into the endocrine system and get your hormones moving. Plus, you touch cellular receptors for temperature regulation that we normally neglect, so you can better handle hot and cold environments. It also positively impacts sleep. When I do three or four ice and heat cycles in the late afternoon, I’m starving afterwards because my mitochondria have been stimulated, and then I just want to lie down. You also rev up your metabolism.”
Hamilton, an avid proponent of ice baths, includes them in his workout routine (which we once had the great pain of experiencing), as well. He, like many others, uses them not only for muscle recovery but for overall body efficiency. He believes that a combination of hot and cold is a workout of a different kind. “Thermoregulation is the most energy-consuming process that you do,” he said. “It’s a muscle, so when we do heat and ice, we’re training the muscle in thermoregulation, which makes us more efficient. It makes us better in the cold, better in the heat, and overall more efficient.”
Laird Hamilton completes a morning pool workout at his Malibu home. The workout is bookended with ice baths. Photo: The Inertia/Aika Lau
Despite those widely-believed theories, however, there isn’t much peer-reviewed scientific research out there that proves ice baths really are all that helpful. In fact, research used in a paper published in The Journal of Physiology found that cold water immersion actually hindered muscle recovery.
The comprehensive study was done by Dr. Llion Roberts from the University of Queensland’s School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences and Dr. Jonathan Peake from Queensland University of Technology’s School of Biomedical Sciences. “Cold water immersion is a popular strategy to recover from exercise,” the abstract reads. “However, whether regular cold water immersion influences muscle adaptations to strength training is not well understood.”
Over the course of a 12-week strength training program, the researchers compared the effects of cold water immersion and active recovery. Active recovery is also a widely used technique, but it is a vastly different method from ice baths. In short, athletes practicing it simply do easier workouts on their recovery days and cool down with lighter exercises after their gym session.
During the first part of their study, 21 men did an intensive workout two days a week for the 12 weeks. Eleven men from the group did 10-minute ice baths after while the rest warmed down on exercise bikes. After the 12 weeks was up, “muscle strength and mass had increased more in the active warm down group than the ice bath group.”
Last summer, we did a pool workout with Laird and Gabby that included time in the ice bath. Read the full experience here. Photo: The Inertia/Aika Lau
The second part of the study looked deeper into the muscles themselves. Nine men did single-leg strength exercises, then either sat in a bath or cooled down on the bike. Before they started, researchers took muscle biopsies. Then they took them again two hours after the workout, 24 hours, and 48 hours later. And while the results are hidden in a thick shroud of science, the results came through loud and clear.
What did Dr. Roberts and Dr. Peake find out? Not exactly what had long been theorized, pouring cold water on the entire ice bath theory.
“Cold water immersion attenuated long term gains in muscle mass and strength,” they wrote. “It also blunted the activation of key proteins and satellite cells in skeletal muscle up to two days after strength exercise. Individuals who use strength training to improve athletic performance, recover from injury or maintain their health should, therefore, reconsider whether to use cold water immersion as an adjuvant to their training.”
So, while the science isn’t extraordinarily conclusive, there is a lot to be said for the placebo effect—if that’s all it is. The benefits of ice baths might not be universally backed by the scientific community but there also isn’t evidence that they’re harmful. If that icy, numbing pain feels good, then by all means, feel free to dive in.
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Skip the coffee, jump into an ice bath instead.
If you’re looking to optimize your health, increase your energy (naturally!) and aid recovery, taking an ice bath might be where you should begin.
There’s an ancient Japanese ritual called shugendo, and it’s hardcore.
Shugendo includes a few purifying and soul awakening rituals, and eventually walking under an ice cold waterfall and entering a meditative state.
I’m fascinated with ancient cultures and rituals because most of the time there are some really fascinating nuggets of wisdom nestled in there.
When it comes to cold therapy, most of us know the more obvious benefits.
Cold therapy, like ice baths, cryotherapy, and cold showers are known to reduce inflammation and help promote healing to muscles and joints.
This benefit makes the practice worth it on it’s own, but there are some less obvious but very profound benefits that you may not know about.
- It helps alleviate depression in a fairly short amount of time. It does this by activating the sympathetic nervous system, sending blood to the brain and core, and reducing systemic inflammation, which is strongly linked to depression.
- It turns you into a badass. Hippocrates says that cold water therapy “allays physical and mental weakness.” If you’ve ever taken an ice cold shower or bath, you know exactly how this works. It takes some serious focus to stay in the cold water. This will build your will power (kind of like building a muscle) which will carry over to other important areas of your life, like kicking ass at the gym or at work.
- It improves emotional resilience. If you can build the habit of getting into a meditative state while laying in ice cold water on a daily basis, this cool attitude will spill over to the rest of your life. You’ll be more calm, collected and well thought.
- It reduces stress. Uric acid drops, glutathione increases….this means stress is down overall.
- It’s better than a cup of coffee. Want to be alert, sharp and have the focus of a laser? Then turn off the hot water knob tomorrow morning. A cold shower or bath will leave you feeling energized and hyper focused. Your state dictates how you interact with the world, and icy baths leave you in a very heightened and positive emotional state.
- As we mentioned above, hardcore monks did it thousands of years ago under cold waterfalls during the Japanese winters.
That pie looks pretty good to me, and I wanted a piece of it.
My First Crack at an Ice Bath
I’ve experimented with cold showers in the past. Usually it involved turning off the hot water for a few minutes before promptly turning it back up. Way up. Even so, these showers worked magic when it comes to getting into a positive and energized state of mind.
Today I decided to really dive into cold therapy, and run myself an ice bath. First, I filled the tub with cold water from the tap. Since it’s July, and I’m in Texas, it turns out the cold water doesn’t really get very cold. I put all the ice we had from the ice maker into the tub and it melted pretty quickly.
Off to the gas station, where I grabbed 30 lbs of ice, came home and dumped that in the tub. The ice didn’t melt. Game on.
As I stood beside the tub, I told myself “Nothing to it but to do it” in my best Ronnie Coleman voice. I stepped in the tub, and sat my butt down in the water and ice cubes. The air was immediately sucked from my lungs. Before I could talk myself out of it, I laid myself down in the water.
It looked like I was hyperventilating. It took me at least a couple minutes of short choppy breathing before I regained my composure. The water didn’t feel that cold on my skin. The most uncomfortable part was the fact my body was freaking out.
I doubled down my focus on my breathing, and eventually worked myself into a pattern of long and slow breaths. It started to feel good. I laid in the water, breathing slowly and working myself into a meditative state, the way I do each morning on the couch. While the biting cold water added a challenge that the couch doesn’t, it started to feel…interesting.
I was relaxed but hyper aware. My eyes were closed, but I was seeing patterns that looked like water on a lake (weird, I know). Once I reached this point, it was smooth sailing the rest of the way. After about 7 minutes I could tell that the water had stolen a good chunk of my body heat, and the water itself didn’t feel very cold anymore.
Once I got myself dried off, I felt amazing. Clear, awake, focused and energized. It wasn’t like a caffeine induced focus/ energy. It felt clean and clear, probably because it was provided by my own body and not an outside influence.
The short term benefits were worth it. To enjoy the long term benefits which are listed above, it will need to be a regular practice. While I don’t intend on bathing in 30 lbs of ice on a daily basis, I will be making cold showers a part of my morning routine.
Overall, I would rate this experience high, and I would encourage you to try it out. Of course, it’s very shocking, so be sure that you’re healthy and cleared to practice this type of thing by a doctor.
Do you have your own experiences with cold therapy? If so, comment below and tell me about it. I find this fascinating and would love to hear your story.
By Fitmo Coach and Ice Bath Enthusiast, Mitch Heaslip
Mitch is going to get you into the best shape of your life! But what’s his secret? Mitch has developed solid methods that work for both men and women in losing weight and building muscle. With his very flexible approach, Mitch can tailor his methods to anyone. When it comes to building strength, muscle, and losing fat, his approach is second to none!
Learn more about Mitch, and working with him via the Fitmo app here.
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In the continuum of training and recovery methods that ranges from “absolutely beneficial” to “definitely harmful”, ice baths and antioxidants fall squarely in the middle. There’s not much evidence to back up claims of substantial benefits, but little evidence showing them to be harmful, either. That doesn’t mean they’re useless; it just means you need to understand what you’re using them for.
Do Ice Baths Work?
For many years, coaches and sports scientists have debated the efficacy of ice baths for post-workout recovery. The primary rationale for immersing your legs in an ice bath is to reduce inflammation and minimize the onset of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). The big question has always been whether achieving either of those goals actually enhances recovery.
Current science seems to indicate that ice baths may not offer the expected benefits, because the very inflammation they seek to reduce may be crucial for stimulating the training adaptations athletes seek. By reducing inflammation you may actually be hindering the positive adaptation to training stress. Alex Hutchinson, author of the Sweat Science blog for Runner’s World (and now Outside), addressed this subject and the relevant studies quite well in this 2015 article and this update in 2016.
The most important takeaways regarding ice baths, in our view, are that not all inflammation is bad and that inflammation is not the same thing as swelling. Inflammation, which is a widespread response to stress involving many difference cells and signalers, plays a necessary role in promoting positive adaptation to training. Swelling, or edema, is the accumulation of fluid in or around tissues. The good news from recent science is that ice baths may help reduce swelling by constricting blood vessels, without having much impact on the inflammatory response to exercise. The not-as-good news is that ice baths don’t appear any better for reducing swelling than a purposeful cooldown at the end or a workout/race, or a walk on rest days.
A circumstance that may still warrant cool- to cold-water immersion could be following exercise in high-temperature environments. Instead of focusing on reducing inflammation, the rationale for proactive post-workout cooling following exposure to high temperatures would be to facilitate the reduction of elevated core temperature.
Should You Load up on Antioxidants?
For a long time nutrition supplement companies have pushed the idea that antioxidant supplementation is crucial for blunting the damage that free radicals wreak on cells throughout your body. Free radicals are a byproduct of processing oxygen in the body, and since athletes take in and process a lot more oxygen than sedentary people, we are subjected to a lot more oxidative stress. Free radicals are thought to damage cells to the point that people with high levels of oxidative stress are more likely to develop cancer. As a result, it seems to make perfect sense that athletes should load up on more antioxidants to neutralize the detrimental effect of generating more free radicals.
The problem with this logic is that if free radicals were as cancer-causing as they are made out to be, the incidence of cancer in elite athletes would be substantially greater than it is in the general population because elite athletes are subjected to substantially more oxidative stress than the general population. In reality, that’s not the case.
Part of the reason elite athletes don’t suffer greater incidence of cancer due to oxidative stress may be due to the fact they naturally consume more antioxidants through diets rich in fruits and vegetables, and diets that are high in overall caloric intake (which further increases their intake of antioxidant-containing fruits and vegetables). Current science does not indicate that athletes – or the general public – should reduce antioxidant intake, but it does call into question whether proactive supplementation provides additional benefits.
The potential problem with proactively loading up on antioxidants is similar to the issue with ice baths: you may be blunting a positive and necessary stimulus for adaptation. Some exposure to free radicals results in a strengthening of your body’s natural defenses against oxidative stress, making muscles more resistant to the damage free radicals can cause. As a result, experienced athletes and high-level athletes are better able to naturally neutralize free radicals than a less-fit “weekend warrior” who only exercises occasionally. For experienced and trained athletes, over-supplementation may hinder training adaptation, whereas increased intake (or minor supplementation) could potentially be beneficial for weekend warriors.
Taking a big-picture view, in light of current research, our advice on antioxidants – to athletes at any level – is to focus on consuming more fresh, colorful fruits and vegetables. There is no downside to consuming more cranberries, blackberries, blueberries, red beans, kidney beans, apples, and plums (all foods high in antioxidants). What may be unnecessary is purchasing and consuming concentrated forms of antioxidants on top of what you’re getting from a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. And your worst choice would be to load up on antioxidant supplements while reducing consumption of fresh, colorful fruits and vegetables.
Micah Gross, Oliver Baum & Hans Hoppeler (2011): Antioxidant supplementation and endurance training: Win or loss?, European Journal of Sport Science, 11:1, 27-32
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Much like foam rolling and putting coconut oil on f**cking everything, during the last decade or so the use of ice baths has become a mainstay of rugby strength and conditioning.
To explain the popular rationale for using ice baths, let’s remind ourself of the body’s 3 step response to injury. Because when we perform strenuous exercise like strength and power training, that is essentially what we are creating: microscopic injury to muscle tissue
1. Acute inflammation
The body attempts to inhibit and immobilise itself to prevent any further damage by flooding the area with fluid. Damaged cells are destroyed and broken down, and chemical signals for growth and repair are released at the site of the injury.
The waste products of the previous phase are transported away from the injury site, and the raw materials for repair are laid down in their place. However the formation of new tissue is haphazard and unordered.
The final stage in which new tissue is re-ordered to better tolerate the demands placed upon it. Increases in performance will be apparent during this stage.
Fully aware of this standard response to injuries, coaches and athletes looked to ice baths as a tool to accelerate gains in strength, power and lean muscle mass. The rationale goes like this:
- The inflammation we create after heavy training is associated with soreness and a decline in performance.
- All of the positive adaptations associated with training (strength, hypertrophy, power etc.) occur during recovery.
- Ice baths- due to their constrictive effect on blood vessels- limit inflammation and reduce the decline in performance we experience after strenuous exercise.
- This may also create a pumping effect, clearing tissue of by products like lactic acid when the cold is eventually removed, the blood vessels re-open and new blood floods the muscles again.
- By reducing inflammation and creating less mess in the first place, ice baths also speed up recovery, allowing us to train harder, more frequently, substantially increasing gains in strength and power.
Here’s the problem though: ice baths may actually slow recovery down, and reduce longer term increases in strength and power. In fact, much of the evidence suggests that the only real benefits to ice baths are psychological. Here’s why:
Delayed inflammation and white blood cell accumulation
Many of the studies which demonstrate the effectiveness of ice baths in reducing inflammation and accumulation of white blood cells (the guys responsible for destroying damaged tissue and creating signals for re-growth) measure this response over a very short time frame- for hours or a couple of days at best.
Opposing studies have shown that once the ice bath has stopped, this inflammation and white blood cell response still happens. The ice bath just delays this effect. Whether we like it or not, it is going to happen! If this response is responsible for creating soreness and impaired performance, why not get it over and done with rather than delay the inevitable?
By working against the body’s natural response to tissue damage, we may actually be slowing recovery down rather than speeding it up as we intend to.
Inflammation is the signal for adaptation
Training is all about stress. Without stress there is no adaptation, there is no improvement in strength, speed or power. Internally, inflammation is the body’s stress response to heavy training. Within reason the more inflammation we create, the bigger a signal for adaptation we create. Why would we work against this and turn the signal down by using ice baths?
A number of studies have now shown that long term ice bath use results in less strength, power and muscle gains than when no ice baths are used. Yes soreness, inflammation and temporarily impaired performance are unpleasant things to deal with, but that is the price of improvement.
It’s a placebo effect
Much of the evidence suggests that the biggest benefit of ice baths is psychological. Athletes may experience a small reduction in soreness and benefit to performance in the short window of time following intense exercise, but there is no significant physical change taking place within the body. In short, the ice bath acts a placebo.
After intense contact training and matches, being in pain is never a good thing. It can affect motor learning and execution of skills in future sessions, with negative consequences. But getting some rugby players into an ice bath after a training session is like getting a cat in the shower.
A lot of players absolutely HATE ice baths. For these guys there is nothing relaxing or beneficial about standing in a dustbin full of ice whilst their balls jump into their torso. My guess is that for these players ice has no beneficial effect whatsoever, and their time would be better spent on other activities.
What to do instead?
My preference is that athletes get out of the body’s way as much as possible! To steal a quote from my colleague Carl Valle, recovery is pretty much just sleep, time and nutrition so I would rather my athletes invest energy in these three activities.
Once the acute stage of inflammation is ending or over, I prefer any low impact, movement based activity which is able to accelerate the flushing out the muscles (or Normatec if you have the money!). Massage and self massage activities like foam rolling can also replicate the pain reducing effects of ice, but without the drawbacks.
When ice baths may work?
Despite my misgivings I think there may be a few occasions when ice baths may be merited. The most obvious situation is a very short turn around between games. When the team only has a few days to prepare for a game, no significant strength or power training will take place, so reduced adaptation does not matter. The goal here is freshness, and ice may help.
Whilst ice baths are probably a bad idea following non contact gym or speed training, I think there is still a place for ice baths following high contact training if players have sustained impact injuries like dead legs or sore shoulders. To my knowledge there is no performance benefit to be derived from being stamped on the leg, so what is the harm in reducing inflammation and pain?!
A final scenario in which I think ice baths may help is, if despite all the appropriate education and provision of other options, some players still decide that ice baths are their favourite way to recover. If for some reason they feel better and perform better when ice baths are part of their preparation than not.
As much as this upsets my inner scientist, perception is reality and it is extremely important to make sure that athletes believe in what they are doing. Optimal performance is an unlikely outcome if a player hates his or her programme, regardless of how scientific it is! But for everyone else labouring under the assumption that ice baths are helping their performance… nope.
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At the conclusion of each session, half of the men recovered by sitting quietly in a room at the gym for 15 minutes. The others eased themselves into cold baths after every workout, the waters cooled to a constant temperature of about 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius). The men gamely remained in the tubs for 15 minutes.
They continued these workouts three times a week for seven weeks. After the final workout, the scientists again biopsied the volunteers’ muscles and rechecked the men’s leg strength and body compositions. Then they examined the muscle tissues microscopically and began comparing the groups.
On the whole, they found, the members of both groups were stronger now. But, underneath, their tissues appeared quite unalike.
Muscles are composed of long fibers that plump and grow in response to training, and, as would be expected, all of the men had developed larger muscle fibers with seven weeks of lifting. But the increase in fiber size was much greater among those who had sat after every workout than those who had soaked to recover.
More surprising, the cold soakers showed a different balance of certain biochemicals inside their muscles than among the men who had sat. In particular, their muscles contained lower levels of a protein known to spark tissue growth and higher amounts of a different protein involved in tissue breakdown.
In effect, the soakers’ muscles seemed to have become biochemically primed for slower recovery and less growth than the tissues of the other men, says Aaron Petersen, a senior lecturer in exercise physiology at Victoria University, who led the new study.
Dr. Petersen and his colleagues suspect that the repeated cold-water immersions may have triggered complex metabolic reactions inside the body that prioritize keeping tissues warm over helping them to grow. But that theory needs to be studied in future experiments.
How to use your bath to boost your post-workout recovery
June 12 2015
We all love to jump in the tub and enjoy a long hot soak, but could this relaxing pastime hold more power than you first thought?
While the bath tub may be your first choice after a hard day at work, it could also be the most beneficial place to visit after a challenging session at the gym as well. Hydrotherapy, or using water to treat ailments, has been a popular method for helping to relieve minor and more serious pains for centuries. From natural hot springs, to steam rooms, plunging into ice-cold rivers and winding down in warm baths; the magical properties of water have helped humans stay fit and healthy for many years.
Here are a few bath-themed pearls of wisdom that gym-goers everywhere can put to good use.
Should you break the ice?
Jumping into an ice-filled bath sounds like it could do you more harm than good, but submerging your legs in icy water could actually help to reduce severe delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
DOMS strikes when lactic acid and other waste products build up in muscles through your blood vessels, and the theory is that soaking in an icy tub constricts your blood vessels and causes new blood to circulate through the muscles to flush out the waste products. After a 10-15 minute stint in an ice-cold bath you will step out with fresh blood pumping through your body, consequently reducing muscle soreness.
However, don’t get emptying the freezer trays into your baths just yet, ice baths may not be necessary for the average gym-goer. While they may be of benefit to athletes who regularly push their bodies to breaking point, as this kind of exhaustion doesn’t usually happen during an hour-long workout, the benefits could be lost on us mere mortals. Instead, alternating between quick bursts of hot and cold in your post-gym shower could have just as much benefit by contracting and dilating blood vessels, providing the same ‘flushing-out’ effect under less extreme conditions.
Turning the heat up
Combining a warm bath with self massage can work wonders for consistently sore muscles, especially relieving pain in the back. Often people are reluctant to hop into a warm bath when their pain is bad, thinking that the raised temperature will aggravate the inflammation, when really it is often one of the best cures.
Instead of just heating up the surface area where the pain is, a warm bath will provide heat deep inside the entire muscle. Place a tennis ball underneath your back in the bath, the combined pressure of your body weight and the water will naturally roll the ball around, creating a gentle massage sensation.
Baths should never be used as a replacement for post-gym recovery tactics such as stretching, foam rolling and a proper cool down. However, they can provide a little added extra support should you be struggling with muscle pain. Many of DW Fitness Clubs’ gyms have luxury swim and spa facilities, find out which hydrotherapy facilities your local gym has here.