Many CrossFit athletes (and sports superstars, celebrities, you name it) swear by the ice bath, or cold water immersion as it’s called in the exercise science community, as one of the most effective recovery strategies. With the prevalence of elite CrossFitters endorsing this practice, you would hardly think there is any controversy surrounding this practice but think again. While athletes who espouse the benefits of ice baths on recovery seemingly have plenty of anecdotal evidence to support their claims, the scientific evidence to either support or refute its effectiveness or even to explain the physiological mechanisms underlying these effects is severely lacking. Now, this doesn’t mean that cold water immersion isn’t beneficial but, rather, that there simply isn’t enough research to support these claims one way or another.
Theoretically, ice baths exert their positive effect on recovery through vasoconstriction. After 5 -10 minutes, the cold temperature causes your blood vessels to tighten and drains the blood from your limbs. After getting out, the blood is pumped “vigorously” back into these tissues bringing increased blood flow and, hence, fresh nutrients including oxygen into the affected area. In addition, the withdrawal of blood to the body’s core through vasoconstriction is thought to remove toxins and waste products from muscular exertion, lactic acid in particular, from the submerged area. One report suggests that the helpful effects of cold water immersion are not restricted to the muscles but can be helpful for tendons, bones, nerves, and other tissues as well.
Prevents Injury: According to coldtub.com, ice baths may help prevent injury by decreasing adrenaline production. Intense exercise stimulates adrenaline production by activating the sympathetic nervous system. This increase in adrenaline may cause an athlete to ignore signs of fatigue which may lead to over-exertion and injury.
Speeds recovery: This study showed that bold cold water immersion and contrast bath therapy were better than passive recovery for performance.
Keeps muscles limber: The increased blood flow to the affected areas following an ice bath is thought to help remove lactic acid thereby helping to keep your muscles from stiffening.
Reduces inflammation: Ice application reduces inflammation (R.I.C.E. everyone knows that, right?) so it stands to reason that immersion in an ice bath reduces inflammation. “It has, however, been suggested that the inflammatory response is critical for optimal repair of damaged tissue. Although the mechanisms of training adaptation are not fully understood, it may be detrimental to reduce the commonly accepted damage-repair-adaptation model by diminishing the inflammatory response; however, there is a lack of evidence to support this. This raises the question of whether frequent or habitual use of strategies designed to reduce inflammatory responses can be detrimental for elite athlete adaptation to training.”– Leeder et al. BJSM
Decreases muscle pain, soreness: This article from the Journal of Sports Sciences provides evidence that cold water immersion immediately after exercise reduces several indices of muscle damage including perceived muscle soreness after prolonged intermittent shuttle running.
Induces sleep: Tim Ferris (author of The Four Hour Body) writes about his self-experimentation with using ice baths before bed as a way to induce sleep.
Painful: well, this one is pretty definite. Getting into an ice bath is definitely not going to be comfortable.
Negative effect on hormones: a 2009 study at the Pediatric Exercise Research Center in Irvine, CA found that using an ice application after exercise leads to heightened levels of catabolic hormones (which break down protein and muscle tissue) and a reduction in levels of anabolic hormones (which promote muscle tissue growth).
Increased soreness? : a study conducted at the University of Melbourne showed no difference in swelling , tenderness, or isometric strength or function between subjects who underwent cold water immersion versus those who were submerged in lukewarm water. Additionally, subjects in the cold water group reported more pain when going from a sitting to a standing position after 24 hours.
No Benefit: There are a number of research studies that simply show no beneficial effect of ice baths on a number of different quantifiable or perceived measures of recovery. But, besides one or two exceptions, there have been few studies to demonstrate negative consequences (provided you aren’t in the ice bath long enough to induce hypothermia and you don’t have a pre-existing heart or respiratory condition). So, worst case scenario that ice bath is having a negligible effect on your recovery efforts.
As suggested by Brandon Morrison over at Lift Big Eat Big, you may be giving ice baths credit for your successful recovery when it is really your other recovery efforts that are doing the job. He believes active recovery workouts are much more beneficial than ice baths…read his article here.
However, we can not discount the fact that, in trying to perform controlled experiments to determine the effectiveness of cold water immersion, there is not really a true “control” group. What do I mean by this? Well…in an ideal experiment, the subjects should not know to which condition they have been assigned. In conducting an experiment on ice baths, if the experimenter assigns one group to the ice bath condition and assigns the other group to a warm water condition, both groups clearly know what type of water they are bathing in. Similarly, in experiments that compared an ice bath group to a group that did nothing after exercise they still aren’t comparing apples to apples. So, for athletes that report a beneficial effect of ice baths on their recovery, we can’t really say it’s just a placebo effect.
Also, as suggested in this article from Sweat Science, we cannot discount the fact that there is a difference between “lab fatigue” and “real-world fatigue” as used in the studies I have mentioned here and others.
So, where does that leave us? Are ice baths beneficial or not? Are they better than other recovery methods? As of yet, we can’t definitively answer these questions. But, I’d love to hear your thoughts…who uses ice baths as a part of your recovery?