The ice bath is a tradition embedded in both sport and general society that is thought to cure all ills after a hard physical slog. The spate of ice bucket challenges last year exposed a lot more of the population to the experience and all for a good cause. As regular readers of this blog will have heard before however, popularity does not necessarily mean backed up by sound evidence. I am going to do you a huge favour and possibly provide you with an excuse to avoid ice baths from now on (thank me later).
Firstly lets have a look at what ice baths aim to achieve according to those who attempt such a feat.
Why Ice Baths?
Ice baths are a form of cryotherapy which aims to disrupt muscle inflammation that occurs as a result of strenuous exercise. Ice baths aim to help those poor souls that take them, recover faster by reducing fatigue and muscle soreness and hence increase subsequent performance. Some also claim that ice baths “help legs fill up with new blood, invigorating the muscles with oxygen to help cells function better”.
What the evidence says:
The evidence for ice baths is very unclear at present but that does not mean we cannot draw some info from the direction it is taking. A systematic review in The British Journal of Sports Science from Leeder et al. (2011) concluded that cold water immersion did help with exercise related muscle soreness from 24 to up to 96 hours after exercise. It also claimed that muscle strength was not significantly different between those that used CWI and those that did not. The authors do admit however that there may be a placebo effect at play here. This is largely due to the principle of perceptual contrast where if you experience pain on some level and then experience pain on a higher level, the first experience wont feel as bad. An extreme example of this may be, the scenario where you have just finished a hard workout and have sore legs a few days later. I then pour a cup of boiling water over your arm and hey presto, those sore legs are feeling tip top.
The most interesting research in my opinion however has just very recently been published in the last few weeks (therefore, hot off the press). Authors Llion et al. (2015) compared the effects of cold water immersion and active recovery on changes in muscle mass and strength after 12 weeks of strength training. One group (n=12) used CWI, the other (n=12) did not (active recovery group). The authors found that the CWI “substantially attenuated long-term gains in muscle mass and strength and delayed and/or suppressed the activity of satellite cells and kinases in the mTOR pathway during recovery from strength exercise”. In plain English, that means that the CWI group had reduced gains in strength and hypertrophy possibly due to the colder temperature interrupting the adaptation process required to realise these gains. These results indicate that using an ice bath following strenuous exercise will be like driving with a hand brake on. You’re going places but not as fast as you might expect.
Take home points
From looking at the current research it looks like the following points may be advisable: