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  • Boris Clark

Ice baths: More harm than good?

Updated: Feb 18

It’s common to hear about athletes doing cold water immersion, better known as ‘ice baths’ to help their recovery after strenuous training or competition. You may see them sitting in bathtubs, trash bins filled with ice and water, or even just going into a cold lake, you may even see some athlete paying to go to special ‘cryotherapy’ facilities where they stand in a freezing cold ‘pod’ like structure as they get cooled. The suggested benefits of doing this are reduced swelling, reduced soreness, inflammation and fatigue, alter blood flow, and reduce core temperature. Generally these ice baths are in water less than 15 degrees Celsius for 10-15 minutes.

If you live in the arctic an ice bath is easily accessible!

Ice bath theory

The theory behind ice baths is reasonably sound. You put muscles damaged from exercise into cold water. This cold reduces inflammation in the muscle tissue, which hastens recovery, reduces muscle soreness, and has you ready to go again sooner.

Problems with Ice baths

There are a few minor problems with ice baths, and one major one.

Minor problems

· If the water is too cold you may increase inflammation. Instead of a nice cooling effect, you get more of a ‘freezer burn’ effect, making things worse rather than better.

· It’s uncomfortable. After the first few minutes an ice bath can begin to feel a bit more tolerable, but overall, they aren’t a nice experience.

· It’s not always easy to set up an ice bath. You require somewhere to do it such as a bath tub, which isn’t always an option, a lot of ice which wither requires a lot of storage space or you have to buy it, turning this into a pretty expensive 15 minutes or so.

The major problem

When we train, we break the body down. This sends adaptive signals to rebuild our cells stronger and better than before, create more enzymes for reactions, and many other changes which make us better than before.

The problem is there is a difference between RECOVERY and ADAPTATION.

Recovery is getting back to firing on all cylinders, being ready to train or compete again.

Adaptation is creating structural and chemical changes in the body which will allow us to perform at a higher level in the future.

Ice baths help recovery, they likely hinder adaptation.

It takes a lot of ice to cool a whole bath tub down!

Sure, ice baths have reduced inflammation, but inflammation is a strong signal to the body that something is wrong, not only does this damage need to be repaired, but we can rebuild stronger so this doesn’t happen next time. The problem when you use ice baths to reduce inflammation, is that it can also reduce this adaptive signalling, and therefore our response to training is less.

Sure you recover faster. But the whole point of the training and recovery cycle isn’t to go training, and recover fast so you can train again, it’s to force an adaptive response so you become a better athlete so you perform better in competition!

Why are ice baths still popular among athletes?

There are probably two main reasons for this.

1. Myth. The idea of ice baths and recovery is just that engrained in athletes minds that they think it is a great strategy to allow them to train harder (which in a way it is), without realising they are probably destroying some of the gains they should have created.

2. When rapid recovery is needed. Imagine doing a competition of multiple events or stages. For instance, a tour in cycling, perhaps even the Tour de France. Sure, most athletes would like to get an adaptive response out of riding the Tour de France, but the load of the Tour is so much that they probably can’t adapt properly to that anyway, and also the main goal is performance each day, making an ice bath and rapid recovery (albeit with less adaptation) a good choice. This can apply for any other tournament or race you may have. If you are using the event for training, probably forego the ice bath, if it is your main event and you need to perform at your peak tomorrow, then it may well be worth it to have an ice bath.

A situation when it may be worthwhile taking an ice bath.

One other situation where a post event ice bath (or similar) may be worthwhile is when the competition has been in theologically stressing conditions (i.e. extreme heat). If core temperature is significantly elevated, as happens in very hot weather and intense exercise, then it is very difficult for the body to do anything that productive until it is back in it’s normal operating temperature range. Therefore taking an ice bath, wearing ice vests, or cold towels, or drinking something such as a slushy is probably a very good idea to help kick start both the recovery and adaptation process.

Qatar road cycling World Championships 2016. 50 degrees Celsius. An ice bath is a good idea here!

It pays to be aware that not everything that enhances ‘recovery’ will also enhance adaptation and continued improvement. Think twice before blindly jumping into that ice bath after training!

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