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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.”
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.”
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.