Athletes are known for immersing themselves up to the neck in icy water in a bid to reduce DOMS and speed up recovery. But does it really work or is it outdated broscience?
Let’s face it, nobody wants to lower themselves into a vat of cold water and ice cubes unless absolutely necessary. But that’s exactly what athletes from all types of sports have been doing for decades. It makes sense: we know that training causes inflammation, which in turn leads to soreness, and ice brings down inflammation. But are ice baths really an optimal or even a necessary part of your recovery protocol?
Why athletes use ice baths for recovery
Ice baths or cold water immersion is thought to help reduce pain and inflammation and speed up the initial stages of recovery after training or competing.
How does the body recover from training?
To understand how ice baths do (or don’t) help recovery, we need to understand the processes behind recovery. “Recovery” is the process of restoring physiological (and psychological) function after training or competing.
The recovery process increases physical adaptations (strength, muscle growth, power), decreases inflammation and soreness, supports tissue repair, reduces stress and fatigue.
Ice baths vs cold water immersion
The biggest mistake athletes make with ice baths is getting fixated on the word “ice”. Most physios encourage cold water immersion (CWI) therapy, where the water is 10*C (minimum) rather than colder icy temperatures. (1)
The main benefit of cold water immersion over ice baths is that you can actually stay in cold water for far longer than you can stay in icy water – and this is a key factor for recovery. 10-15 minutes in ~10*C water is far more effective than a few minutes in icy water.
The science of ice baths
Despite the layman logic of ice baths, there is very little scientific data to support its benefits on recovery (besides a strong placebo effect). A 2012 systematic review concluded that there is some evidence that cold water immersion reduces DOMS (compared with rest or no intervention) but there’s insufficient evidence to conclude on other outcomes. (2)
A later paper published in the Journal of Physiology in 2017 is titled “cold water immersion is no greater than active recovery upon local and systemic inflammatory cellular stress in humans”. (3)
It concluded that cold water immersion therapy is likely more useful during peak training blocks or competition settings, when athletes need a short turnaround between bouts of exercise. This paper added that there is little evidence for using cold water immersion during a pre-season or prep phase of training.
3 ways to use cold water to boost recovery
1 Cold showers after training – either alone or alternating cold and tepid water (this is called contrast hydrotherapy)
2 Cold water immersion (CWI) therapy – the easiest way to do this is using your bath
3 Swimming/immersion in water below 15*C (ideally in a pool if you can find one cold enough, if you choose to use open water always pay attention to water and weather conditions and never swim unaccompanied) (4)
The bottom line on ice baths
So – should you immerse yourself in icy water, cold water, or not bother at all? The jury is still out, with researchers failing to find much compelling evidence for the practice. That said, some athletes swear by cold water immersion for physical and mental recovery.
There doesn’t appear to be any risk, so if cold water makes you feel better after training – go for it. Just make sure the rest of your recovery strategy is on point too: sleep, nutrition, hydration, rest days, and soft tissue work.