Cold water immersion and ice baths are one of the most common recovery methods used in elite sports. Athletes have been taught that ice baths will help reduce inflammation post intense exercise and improve speed of recovery, which is a tantalising promise.
Despite it’s popularity, there are significant doubts on how effective cold water immersion is at improving recovery. Below we take a look at the evidence for and against ice baths.
What is cold water immersion?
Cold Water Immersion (CWI) or Cold Therapy (cryotherapy) is the process of submerging part of or multiple parts of your body into cold water for an extended period of time. The aim of this is to improve markers of recovery and reduce muscle soreness post exercise.
Do ice baths improve recovery in runners?
- Machado et.al (2015) found that cold water immersion is “slightly better than passive recover”. However, passive recovery involved participants remaining seated and doing nothing….
- Lastly Roberts et al. (2015) looked at the effects of cold water immersion on muscle mass (muscle hypertrophy) after a 12-week strength training program. They found that cold water immersion post strength training sessions actually reduced long term gains in muscle mass and strength by blunting the activation of key proteins and satellite cell (markers of muscle growth) in skeletal muscle for up to 2 days after strength exercise.
- A trial by Broatch et al. (2014) found that cold water immersion is no more effective than a placebo in improving ratings of readiness for exercises and pain post high intensity exercise.
Do ice baths improve psychological well being?
We’re glad you asked! Unfortunately, no research has looked into the psychological benefits of cold water immersion post intense exercise. Though anecdotally it is said to improve team/social cohesion when performed in a group. When performed alone, it can be an almost meditative practice.
Best temperature and duration of ice baths
If you are still keen on giving ice baths a go, here are a few tips:
- 11-15 degrees celsius is the proposed ideal temperature.
- 11-16 minutes is the proposed ideal total submersion time.
Longer durations and colder temperatures can be harmful to some. So be wise!
Ultimately, cold water immersion may not be the magic recovery pill we once thought. However, the psychological benefits for an individual and a team could be substantial, so don’t through the baby out with the ice water…
1. Machado, A. F., Ferreira, P. H., Micheletti, J. K., de Almeida, A. C., Lemes, Í. R., Vanderlei, F. M., … & Pastre, C. M. (2016). Can water temperature and immersion time influence the effect of cold water immersion on muscle soreness? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Medicine, 46(4), 503-514.
2. Broatch, J. R., Petersen, A., & Bishop, D. J. (2014). Postexercise cold water immersion benefits are not greater than the placebo effect. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 46(11), 2139-2147.
3. Roberts, L. A., Raastad, T., Markworth, J. F., Figueiredo, V. C., Egner, I. M., Shield, A., … & Peake, J. M. (2015). Post‐exercise cold water immersion attenuates acute anabolic signalling and long‐term adaptations in muscle to strength training. The Journal of physiology, 593(18), 4285-4301.