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Ice Baths: Recovery Aid or Inhibitor?

“It wasn’t me, it was a piece of ice! I swear!”
Elite athletes swear by ice baths as a recovery aid. From elite weightlifters, to football and basketball players, the bath has a laundry list of celebrity endorsers. The case for ice baths include claims that the icy water helps shift lactic acid and that the ice causes the blood vessels to constrict and drains them of waste products, causing them to fill up with fresh blood after athletes emerge from the ice.
Even though the physiotherapists who recommend the ice baths have little evidence to prove these claims, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence from athletes that the baths make them feel better.
Calling it a placebo effect is not accurate either. A placebo effect would imply that the athlete doesn’t know whether the ice they are sitting in is ice water, or lukewarm. Hard to confuse the two, don’t you think? You can’t get a placebo effect from a pill when you know it is a sugar pill.
It’s working.
There have been multiple studies that have tested the theory of ice baths and they have come to the same conclusions. Lets go over a few of them.
In 2009, the Pediatric Exercise Research Center in Irvine, California conducted a study and found several negative effects of icing on athletic performance.  They found that using ice baths after training  leads to increased levels of catabolic hormones (which break down protein and muscle) and a decrease in anabolic hormones (which promote muscle and tissue growth.
Going along with the theories of ice baths I stated earlier in the article, scientists at the University of Melbourne also conducted a study where they expected to find a 25% reduction in pain after 48 hours among those who had the ice immersion. Instead, the results showed that there was no difference in physical pain measurements such as swelling or tenderness. In fact, those who had been in the ice baths reported more pain when going from a sitting to a standing position after 24 hours, versus those who were submerged in lukewarm water. “Ice-water immersion offers no benefit for pain, swelling, isometric strength and function, and in fact may make more athletes sore the next day.”( UMEL)

It is still unclear why the ice had the negative effects and the researchers said further study was needed.

In 2009, researchers from Sport, Leisure and Ergonomics IV conducted a study on 18 female athletes. The athletes were instructed to induce muscle tissue damage  via exercise and then partake in “cold-water immersion” (ice bath). They reported that a single 10 minute bout of cold-water therapy after strenuous exercise has zero beneficial effects on recovery from the symptoms of exercise-induced muscle damage.
Ice baths differentiate from localized ice pack application. Localized ice packs can offer an analgesic effect to painful areas, as well as a numbing sensation.
To sum this article up, cold-water immersion:
  • Seems to have no beneficial effect on the structural damage done to the muscle
  • Has no effect on perceived soreness (how sore you think you feel) if the athlete is untrained or not used to the exercise that has caused the soreness
  • Has a positive effect on perceived soreness if the athlete is highly trained and/or used to the exercise that has caused the soreness
  • May reduce strength for at least an hour afterward 
“For those who believe in getting cold, the key to recovery may actually depend on something else we’re doing.

1) Active recovery is more beneficial than CWI. You may be giving CWI the credit for your recovery when really it’s because of your active recovery workouts.

2) CWI may make you feel better for a little while…but see how you feel 24 hours later. You may be giving CWI credit for immediate alleviation of muscle pain because CWI temporarily increases warmth in the center of the body and increases blood flow and heart rate. However, this is because of a hormone release due to the cold skin temperature. It can potentially make you feel better but does little to nothing for muscle recovery.” (T-nation)
This will give you something to think about next time you think about dipping into the frigid depths.
Starret discusses why icing is not only ineffective, it actually interrupts the healing process, while only offering a numbing sensation.


-A single 10-min bout of cold-water immersion therapy after strenuous plyometric exercise has no beneficial effect on recovery from the symptoms of exercise-induced muscle damage- J. R. Jakemana, R. Macraea & R. Eston
-Effect of local cold-pack application on systemic anabolic and inflammatory response to sprint-interval training: a prospective comparative trial
Dan Nemet,corresponding author1,2 Yoav Meckel,3 Sheli Bar-Sela,3 Frank Zaldivar,2 Dan M. Cooper,2 and Alon Eliakim1,2,3

9 thoughts on “Ice Baths: Recovery Aid or Inhibitor?

  1. Another nice article and I like the sourcing of peer-reviewed lit.

    Although not a “true” placebo, the ice bath could reduce pain/soreness, or have other effects due to perceived benefits. That is, if I truly, passionately believe that ice baths work, then they might “work” for me. The mechanism of such actions would neural and probably unknown. Very interesting post. I’ve never done an ice bath because it freezes my balls, and I like my balls! 😉

  2. interesting link that might apply to some of the studies you referenced…

  3. Increased catabolic hormone levels and decreased anabolic hormones is normal after strenuous exercise, especially weight lifting. Have the studies you referenced here adjusted for this natural shift in hormone balance? If not, this cannot at all be attributed to ice baths..
    Also, inflammation is a double edged sword. Aids tissue healing, but also hurts like a bitch.. Ice baths i suspect have no affect on injury prevention.

  4. I understand the theory behind negative effect for strength athletes in regard to recovery and muscle building. Do you think this also holds true for people using ice baths to mitigate repetitive stress injuries in long sprint training (400m training)? I have used ice bathing when I was training as a Division 1 track and field athlete and have added the practice to my athletes recovery program. Personally I liked the effects during recovery. My athletes have also shown a decrease in recovery time since the introduction of ice bathing into our program. Could this be from something else we are doing…maybe. The only thing that has changed is ice bathing. Is this a mental aide? That is also a possibility

  5. What about contrast baths?

  6. The only way ice is ineffective is when too much ice is used, more than 20 will constrict and decrease circulation, which will reduce the healing process. This is why athletics trainers, practitioners, and physicians only recommend 10 minutes per bout following strenuous activity. For injuries it differs because the injury response system is compromised. So, the rule of thumb is twenty minutes on and forty minutes off for aggressive intervention of an acute injury. Ice does in fact restrict blood circulation, however, when used incorrectly. Moreover, ice does reduce swelling, inflammation and pain. The body must still get blood into the damaged area to promote healing. Using too much ice will prevent the healing process from the beginning of the acute stage. What most people fail to realize is, 2-3 minutes following an ice bath, a hot shower (not a bath) will help to relax larger groups of muscles and increase circulation to the effected areas. Which in turn, promotes and increases the healing process. Keep soaking! Michael Frazier M.S. CPT.

  7. good read-ice reduces blood flow and slows down cellular replication. I’ve felt more benefits from heat therapy after strenuous workouts or when my muscles are sore.

  8. I’ve never been one for ice baths alone, but back in my college football days, I used to take contrast baths. Alternating between ice bath and hot whirlpool bath. I think the ratio was like 3 (hot) to 1 (ice) in time submerged. I actually found between this and strecthing at night, it nearly eliminated my soreness during training camps. When I didn’t engage in this routine, it was like I was walking around like a zombie.

    The benefits could have been in my head BUT doesn’t seem like it. I just wonder if there are any benefits to the contrast bath instead of just the ice bath alone.

  9. Just FYI – placebos do work even if you know it’s only a placebo!

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