Hit the ICE after a burn!


Iceman Wim Hof in an ice bath in 2007.

Taking an after exercise plunge in an ice water bath (a tub of 12 to 15 degrees Celsius ice water) is a common practice among many élite athletes as a way to recover faster, and cut muscle pain and soreness after intense training sessions or competitions. From élite runners like Paula Radcliff to nearly all professional rugby players, the ice bath is a standard practice routine.

The body needs to service itself and parts for the next day, next race or next match. The body does this with the help of the blood vessels that bring oxygen to the tissues and remove the waste products of exercise, the most common being lactic acid. Too much lactic acid build up can cause the muscles to work poorly and over a long time feelings of fatigue, heavy legs and general tiredness can set in.

So how do ice baths help to boost the body’s recovery processes and prevent injury?

When you get into an ice bath for five to 10 minutes, the icy cold water causes your blood vessels to tighten and drains the blood out of your legs. After 10 minutes your legs feel cold and numb. So when Wilko gets out of the bath, his legs fill up with ‘new’ blood that invigorates his muscles with oxygen to help the cells function better.

At the same time, the more blood coming into Jonny’s legs will have to leave as well, draining away and at the same time taking with it the lactic acid that has built up from his match. Most of the players at the Rugby World Cup will be taking ice baths regularly after training sessions to help their muscles stay fresh and avoid injury.

The Scientific Theory

The theory behind ice baths is related that intense exercise actually causes microtrauma, or tiny tears in muscle fibers. This muscle damage not only stimulates muscle cell activity and helps repair the damage and strengthen the muscles ( muscle hypertrophy), but it is also linked with delayed onset muscle pain and soreness (DOMS) , which occurs between 24 and 72 hours after exercise.

The ice bath is thought to:

  • Constrict blood vessels and flush waste products, like lactic acid, out of the affected tissues
  • Decrease metabolic activity and slow down physiological processes
  • Reduce swelling and tissue breakdown

Then, with rewarming, the increased blood flow speeds circulation, and in turn, improves the healing process. Although there is no current protocol about the ideal time and temperature for cold immersion routines, most athletes or trainers who use them recommend a water temperature between 12 to 15 degrees Celsius and immersion times of 5 to 10 and sometimes up to 20 minutes.

So, while that’s the theory behind the cold water immersion for exercise recovery, conclusive research about the pros, cons and ideal time and temperatures is still a ways off.

The Scientific Research

Of the studies that have looked at the effects of ice baths, cold water immersion and contrast water therapy on exercise recovery and muscle soreness, most offer inconclusive or contradictory findings.

One study from the July 2008 issue of the International Journal of Sports Medicine found cold water immersion and contrast water therapy may help recovery from short maximal efforts or during events like stage races where athletes repeat high-intensity efforts on successive days. In this study, researchers had cyclists complete a week of intense daily training routines. After each workout, they used one of four different recovery methods and took nine days off between each week of workouts.

The four recovery methods included:

  1. Immersion in a 15 degree C (59 degree F) pool for 14 minutes;
  2. Immersion in 38 degree C (100.4 degree F) water for 14 minutes;
  3. Alternating between cool and hot water every minute for 14 minutes;
  4. 14 minutes of complete rest.

They reported that the cyclists performed better in the sprint and time trial after cool water immersion and contrast water therapy, but their performance declined with both hot water baths and complete rest.

Another study published in the 2007 British Journal of Sports Medicine found that ice-water immersion offered no real benefit and, in fact, may increase post-exercise muscle soreness after heavy weight training. In this study the researchers compared 1-min immersion in either an ice bath (5 degrees Celsius) or a tepid bath (24 degrees Celsius) following an intense workout.

They found that the athletes who used the ice baths reported no difference in physical pain measurements such as swelling or tenderness. The athletes did, however, report more leg pain the following day, when going from a sitting to a standing position than those who had the tepid water bath treatment. According to the researchers, “Ice-water immersion offers no benefit for pain, swelling, isometric strength and function, and in fact may make more athletes sore the next day.”

Real World Recommendations

It’s clear that more research is needed before a real conclusion can be made, but so far the information that is available indicates the following:

  • Cold water immersion after a hard workout won’t hurt and may, in fact, help recovery.
  • Alternating Cold water and warm water baths (contract water therapy) may also help athletes recover.
  • Ice baths are not necessary; cold water baths (24 degrees Celsius) are as good and perhaps better, than ice baths.
  • Active recovery may be as good as cold water immersion for exercise recovery.
  • Passive recovery is not an effective way to recover.
  • Hot baths after hard exercise may decrease recovery time.
  • Cold Water Therapy – How to Do It

Cold Water Immersion

If you are going to try cool or cold water immersion after exercise, don’t overdo it. Ten minutes immersed in 15 degree Celsius water should be enough time to get the benefit and avoid the risks. Because cold can make muscles tense and stiff, it’s a good idea to fully warm up about 30 to 60 minutes later with a warm shower or a hot drink.

Contrast Water Therapy (Hot-Cold Bath)

If you prefer alternating hot and cold baths, the most common method includes one minute in a cold tub (10-15 degrees Celsius) and two minutes a hot tub (about 37-40 degrees Celsius), repeated about 3 times.

Whether the science supports the ice bath theory or not, many athletes swear that an ice bath after intense training helps them recover faster, prevent injury and just feel better.

Things to remember:

  • Don’t stay too long in the tub

(Ten minutes should be more than enough time to stay in the tub. Stay for more than twenty and you’ll risk suffering from cold-induced muscle damage.)

  • Your first few sessions will be the hardest

(It would be a great idea if you would have something to keep you warm by your side, perhaps a cup of hot chocolate or tea. You might also want to find something to do while under ice bath therapy. You could bring a running book or a magazine with you.)

  • Take a warm bath or shower around 30 minutes to an hour later

(Muscles, along with the tissues, have a tendency to become stiff and tense in extreme cold.)

  • There are times when you might want to jump out of the tub because you can’t handle the cold

(I would suggest that you try your best to handle it. Keep yourself motivated by keeping in mind that this therapy will help your muscles recover, thus, possibly allowing you to have a better performance in your next run.)

  • Extremely cold ice baths, colder than the advised temperature, could result to fainting

(It’s always best to check the temperature from time to time. It’s also better if you let someone know that you’re in the tub with ice. Do this for safety reasons.)

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3 thoughts on “Hit the ICE after a burn!

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  2. Ice baths are rubbish supported by broscience and extremely vague/misleading claims.
    For example: “Constrict blood vessels and flush waste products, like lactic acid, out of the affected tissues” Wouldn’t less bloodflow mean less ‘flushing’ of all chemicals through the muscle?
    “Decrease metabolic activity and slow down physiological processes” Why would you want any of that to happen? What do you even mean by physiological processes? Big scary words being misused, at best.
    “Reduce swelling and tissue breakdown.” Swelling, definitely, but isn’t swelling the body’s natural reaction to tissue damage? If so, then more of an explanation is needed to prove that reducing it is a good thing. Tissue damage? Isn’t all the damage done when you’re lifting weights?

    Good article but ice baths are a terrible idea without a conclusively confirmed scientific benefit, and they even lack a well-articulated justification.

  3. You can be back home by 6:30, if you leave at 5:45 or 6:00. But back home at 5:45? I don’t know…you’d have to leave at around 5. That’s rellay early. And if you hate the heat…it’s already pretty hot that early in the morning. You might just have to wait for the winter. Or for your kids to get bigger. 🙂

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