As physical therapists, most of the questions we get asked from athletes are about muscle recovery and injury prevention. One common practice that we are asked about is the use of ice baths. Some athletes incorporate ice baths into their post-workout routine when they increase their running mileage, have a grueling game or have had a tough practice. Ice baths are said to help reduce inflammation and reduce recovery time, which can help you feel less sore after your workout. So should you be taking the cold water plunge after every workout?
What happens to your body when you sit in icy water for minutes on end? Theories state that the use of extremely cold temps of an ice bath can help “constrict our blood vessels and thereby reduce the inflammatory response that accompanies a heavy workout or intense competition”. Athletes who use and love ice baths do so because they feel they improve their recovery time and don’t have as much pain. A study out of Ireland found an overall positive benefit from ice baths when compared to passive treatment (rest / nothing at all).
Yet, there are many in the medical field who disagree that the use of ice baths to aid in muscle recovery provides any benefit, especially if your goal is to gain muscle strength. A 2015 study from the Journal of Physiology reported that “the participants that used an active cool down after exercise, had greater strength gains than the participants who used cold water immersion”. Many believe it has to do more with a psychological benefit of feeling refreshed and energized, which can be beneficial to some. This is placebo effect is more likely to occur with an occasional ice bath rather than routine use. Some health professionals are more concerned about the possible risks of frostbite and the effects that the cold temps can have on your heart rate. So there are some that do not support ice baths in general.
Overall, it appears that ice baths can be effective and beneficial to some, but unlikely that ice baths are more effective than other available techniques and treatments. We suggest you don’t neglect the proven recovery methods such as stretching, traditional icing, eating healthy and using a foam roller. These tactics combined can help alleviate frustrating muscle soreness and improve your recovery time.
Muscle Recovery Methods: Are Ice Baths Safe?