Ice baths: are they worth it?

Ice baths: are they worth it?

Who uses them?

Win or lose, after a tennis match British number one Andy Murray has a shower, some food and drink, a massage and then rounds off his routine with an ice bath. And he’s not the only athlete to use ice baths to aid recovery after a competition. Heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill used to stand in a wheelie bin of iced water for the sake of her muscles, and Paula Radcliffe also put her success in 2002 down to ice baths. The success of these sportspeople and others who adopt this technique would suggest they work, but when you look for evidence for the impact of this painful remedy, it’s a grey area.

Why do we use them?

The idea is that immersing the body in freezing cold water speeds up recovery after exercise by reducing temperature, blood flow and inflammation in tissues of the muscles. Lots of us will have noticed that an ice pack does reduce the pain and swelling when you’ve pulled a muscle. In one study participants were instructed to put one leg into an ice bath after a strenuous run, and to leave the other one out. Swelling was reduced in the freezing cold leg.

For most of us a little pain relief might be good enough, but for the professional athlete or keen amateur who wants to build muscle, then attempts to mitigate inflammation could be counterproductive. Immersion in cold water is known to reduce blood flow and this could slow down muscle protein synthesis, where the muscle rebuilds itself after injury or strain.

To reap the benefits of doing weights, for example, some inflammation might be useful to help the muscles to repair. So perhaps deliberately reducing that inflammation isn’t such a good idea.

Pros and Cons

There are lots of pros and cons to taking ice baths.

Pros:

  • You can treat a larger area of your body in one go.
  • It helps with flushing lactic acid out from the muscle.
  • It solves the problem of only having one one ice pack or bag of peas to hand!

Cons:

  • It’s cold!
  • They can cause more harm than good – anything over 10 minutes is too long.
  • Don’t assume the colder the bath, the better. I would assume you would also like a shower after your sweaty run or gym workout, and going from a super cold ice bath to a warm shower can erase any potential benefit.

To conclude, because they may work for one person doesn’t mean they will work for everyone, if they do work, great! If you are someone who they don’t work for there are other tools, techniques and skill you can use to aid recovery.

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