Ice bath benefits – are they as real as they seem?
Intense training results in a number of physiological changes to the body. These changes include: muscle damage; a rise in body temperature; depletion of energy stores; and dehydration. It is likely that insufficient restoration of the aforementioned alterations post-training result in sub-optimal performance in subsequent training or competition performance. Furthermore, long-term imbalances between training load and recovery may lead to injury (Ihsan et al. 2016).
Despite the potential harmful effects of training mentioned above, the ultimate objective of training is to initiate a process that produces desirable physiological adaptations, which in turn enhance the physical work capacity of the individual undertaking the training (Stanley et al. 2013). Therefore, certain short-term side effects are necessary for long term benefit.
Despite the common notion of ‘no pain no gain’, and the awareness that short term fatigue is most likely beneficial long-term, athletes and coaches have attempted to find ways to make the effects of training more ‘tolerable’ – or even enhance the effects of training. One method practiced and utilised on a regular basis, by athletes, is that of cold water immersion therapy (CWI), otherwise known as the ice bath.
Ice bath benefits
It is believed that, through its primary ability to decrease muscle temperature and restrict blood flow, CWI or an ice bath benefits recovery by ameliorating hyperthermia, as well as subsequent alternations to the central nervous system, reduce cardiovascular strain, removing metabolic by-products (of exercise), reduce muscle damage, and improve subsequent nervous system function (Ihsan et al. 2016).
Recent findings to support this theory are equivocal, however, and it is far from conclusive as to whether CWI should be employed – on a regular basis, or at all.
Ihsan et al. (2016) suggested that CWI appears to be more beneficial, regarding recovery, for those completing prolonged endurance or intermittent exercise, rather than those completing (eccentric) resistance training. This idea is shared by Roberts et al. (2015) who found regular CWI to reduce long term adaptations to strength training. In other words, if you want to get big and strong, don’t use ice baths.
Versey et al. (2013) suggested that CWI and contrast water therapy (CWT) – where an individual spends a minute in cold water, then a minute in hot water, and alternates between the two for ~15 minutes – were both beneficial, in addition to both being more beneficial than hot water immersion (HWI) or ‘neutral’ water (TWI). That being said, they also stated that it is unclear which, CWI or CWT, is most beneficial.
Pointon et al. (2012) actually found that both maximal voluntary (muscle) contraction and muscle activation were greater, 24 hours after a simulated team sport exercise test, in the group that had conducted passive recovery compared to the group who had undertaken the CWI. Despite immediate recovery rates appearing more beneficial with cold water immersion – for example, heart rate, core temperature, and perceived muscle soreness all being reduced to a greater extent – after 24 hours it seemed as though the CWI negatively affected subsequent strength performance.
Despite not enhancing maximal muscle function, CWI did allow a group of weight lifters to complete more work compared to a group who completed 10 minutes of low intensity cycling. The limitation of the study was that measures were taken 6 hours after test initiation; as we know from results alluded to above, measures that go to 24, or even 48 hours post exercise would be warranted (to fully test the efficacy of recovery methods). That being said, immediate recovery appeared more beneficial with CWI, allowing the individuals to complete more work.
Lastly, Brophy-Williams et al. (2011) demonstrated that next-day performance on the YoYo test was enhanced after immediate CWI following a high intensity interval exercise session 24 hours earlier. They also suggested that ‘delayed’ CWI 3 hours post exercise improved next-day performance, greater than passive recovery but less than immediate CWI.
Ice bath recovery
In summary, hitting the ice bath after training/performance is by no means essential. While CWI certainly reduces core temperature, as well as perceived muscle soreness, it appears that CWI-mediated physiological alterations are less clear – in fact, results that CWI physiologically hampers adaptation are prevalent (see Roberts et al. 2015 for example). It may be that CWI is more beneficial for team sport or endurance athletes, compared with strength athletes. CWI may also be warranted where maximal performance is reproduced in multiple bouts, over a short period of time e.g. during competition. However, the regular use of CWI has not been substantiated in research studies to date. Correct planning and implementation of a periodised/individualised training programme, utilisation of evidence-based recovery methods, as well as optimal sleep and nutrition would seem more relevant in enhancing recovery and ensuring maximal training adaptation.