In recent years, ice baths have soared in popularity as a quick and effective post-workout recovery option for athletes, and it turns out they’ve been around for longer than we realize!
But with the growing hype surrounding ice baths, it is important to separate the facts from the myths.
Are they effective?
While dunking yourself into freezing cold water might not seem too inviting, could it be the answer to that dreaded next-day muscle soreness?
We discuss the potential benefits of ice bath recovery and whether it really is the answer for your exercise recovery.
WHAT IS AN ICE BATH?
In short, ice baths involve immersing the body in ice-cold water immediately after physical activity.
Often lasting around 10-15 minutes, ice baths have been traditionally used to combat muscle pain and soreness associated with exercise- otherwise known as DOMs (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.)
Athletes often use this technique as part of their training regime.
So what are some of the intended benefits of ice baths?
BENEFITS OF ICE BATHS
- REDUCED MUSCLE SORENESS AND INFLAMMATION
Ice baths are often used to reduce muscle soreness and inflammation through blood vessel constriction.
The theory is that ice baths constrict blood flow to blood vessels, which then dilate again post-exposure.
This process is believed to regulate the flow of various bodily fluids, including the removal of metabolic waste produced during exercise.
An increase in blood flow means oxygen and nutrients can move more efficiently through the body.
Ice baths can also potentially reduce inflammation in skeletal muscle, further aiding recovery and soreness.
While some research supports the benefit of ice baths for these purposes, the evidence is still limited.
- BOOSTS ENERGY AND METABOLISM
Some research indicates that ice baths improve sleep and therefore boost mood and energy levels.
Dr. John Rusin states that cold exposure can speed up the rate at which our body burns off blood glucose to warm the body, storing unused glucose in the muscles as glycogen and aiding sports performance.
He also states that cold thermogenesis uses fat metabolism to keep us warm during cold exposure. It does this by recruiting more of our brown adipose tissue (brown fat), which is metabolically active fat.
In short, cold exposure might improve glucose metabolism in humans.
Regardless, a quick blast in an ice bath after a sweaty workout can be refreshing!
- AIDS THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
According to some research, exposing the body to cold water can kickstart the parasympathetic nervous system, improving relaxation and reducing anxiety and cortisol levels.
BUT IS ICE BATH RECOVERY ACTUALLY EFFECTIVE?
While research into ice bath recovery is ever-evolving, bodies such as The European Journal of Sports Science suggest the results are still too questionable to confirm either way.
There is also a mounting body of evidence to suggest cold water immersion could adversely affect workout gains!
During immersion, muscle blood flow is restricted, putting muscle protein synthesis at risk.
Immersion also limits the body’s ability to recognize the need for repair and growth, limiting recovery.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Ice baths are not for everyone!
Anyone experiencing high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease should check with a qualified health professional before trying ice bath recovery.
The decrease in core temperature and restriction of blood flow in the body could place people at greater risk of cardiac arrest and hypothermia if settings are not adequately controlled.
Is it for you?
Make sure you limit exposure, check for any pre-existing medical conditions, and ensure your bath temperature is around 12-15 degrees Celsius, research suggests.
Cited 07.09.21, FrontiersIn, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fspor.2020.568420/full
 Marlatt KL, Ravussin E. Brown Adipose Tissue: an Update on Recent Findings. Curr Obes Rep. 2017;6(4):389-396. doi:10.1007/s13679-017-0283-6
 Cited 07.09.21, https://physoc.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1113/JP270570
 Lateef F. Post exercise ice water immersion: Is it a form of active recovery?. J Emerg Trauma Shock. 2010;3(3):302. doi:10.4103/0974-2700.66570