When an athlete, fitness enthusiast or weekend warrior finishes their sport/activity of choice, one of the first things some love to do post-exercise is to dunk themselves in an ice bath. They claim that the 10-15 minute dip in icy cold water is great for reducing muscle soreness and pain while promoting better recovery.
But here's the big question: Are ice baths actually good for you or is it all just an excuse to sit in a tub full of icy water?
It's a big question with no clear answer so let's dive into this topic and see what medical experts and science has to say about ice baths.
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Do ice baths work?
The general idea of ice baths is that immersing your body in freezing water after exercising will help speed up recovery by reducing the temperature, blood flow, and inflammation of muscle tissues. This isn't some new-age idea as ice baths date back centuries. More recently, a number of professional athletes, like Andy Murray, Usain Bolt, and Jessica Ennis-Hill, do this like clockwork and say that it works like a charm, the science seems to suggest otherwise.
While there are anecdotes from the aforementioned pro athletes that ice baths are helpful, a 2016 study from The Physiological Society looked into comparing ice baths with a gentle warm-down. The results of this study found that ice baths made no difference to the levels of inflammation or the stress response in the muscles after exercise.
A similar 2019 study from The Physiological Society looked into how ice baths impacted recovery post-exercise and found that dunking one's self into cold water negatively affected the body's ability to absorb protein. In other words, post-exercise ice baths may feel good but the science says it actually impairs recovery rather than aid it.
Having said all that, there's also an element of a placebo effect when it comes to ice baths. The science may say one thing, but there are people who believe in the positive qualities of immersing themselves in icy water can help them with their mental health, physical wellbeing, and/or the perception of reduced soreness. Even if the physical benefits aren't confirmed by science, people get some form of psychological benefit.
What are the risks of ice baths?
Right off the bat, you'll have to deal with the freezing cold. It's an ice bath so that's to be expected. There's the risk of hypothermia, shock, and/or frostbite if you're submerged for too long of a period of time, so caution must be exercised.
Immersion in icy water constricts blood vessels and slows the blood flow in the body, resulting in an increased risk of cardiac arrhythmias and even heart attacks. As such, ice baths are not recommended for those with high blood pressure, a pre-existing cardiovascular disease, or who are pregnant.
So, should I take ice baths after exercising then?
This is a tough one to answer as while there has been a good amount of research conducted on this topic, more study is required to conclusively determine whether ice baths are actually good for you post-exercise.
The aforementioned two studies contain certain limitations, such as the use of small sample sizes, a limited age range, and only one gender, and most of the studies and research performed so far have been inconclusive, small, or haven't been able to establish a solid correlation between ice baths and its effect on muscle recovery. As such, we can't definitively say whether ice baths work or not just yet.
If you've decided that you want to give ice baths a try after exercising, make sure you take all the recommended precautions, especially regarding the temperature and time spent immersed, and talk to your doctor for an expert opinion.
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Information sourced from: ABC, BBC, HealthLine, Men's Fitness, NCBI #1, NCBI #2, Running Magazine, and ScienceDaily
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All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice.