Now that we’ve discussed some nutritional strategies to maximize your recovery, let’s turn our attention to another aspect of post-workout recovery: ice baths. Also known as cold water immersion, cryotherapy or cold water therapy, taking ice baths post workout can be a quick way to diminish muscle soreness, flush out lactate (acid that accumulates in your blood during anaerobic exercise), and feel fresher for your next training session.I’ll be up front with you—the research on cold water therapy shows mixed results. However, in my personal experience as a Division I swimmer, ice baths have helped me quite a bit over the years. In pursuit of maximizing your recovery, they certainly are worth a try.
What constitutes an ice bath?
In many collegiate programs and professional sports organizations, there are ice baths within the facility for athletes to jump into post workout. Temperatures vary, but are usually in the 50-60 degree Fahrenheit or 12-15 degree Celsius range. Athletes can slip on booties to cover their feet while in the bath for comfort. Following an intense workout, especially if it involved weightlifting that day, my university recommended a lower-extremity ice bath for 12 minutes. If I went up to the base of my neck to include my upper extremities, back, and shoulder muscles, then 8 minutes was considered sufficient. It’s important that you spend only a limited time in the ice bath. Twenty minutes or longer is far too much time and you won’t accrue any significant benefits from staying in so long. Feel free to keep your hands out of the water and always your head. As a general piece of advice, do not go in the ice bath for recovery if you feel sick or feverish in the slightest, as this may throw off your immune system more than help with recovery. If you do not have access to a facility with an ice bath, you can make one the old-fashioned way. Just as I did several times in hotel bathtubs during travel meets, grab many buckets of ice and pour them into a tub. Fill the tub part way with cold water, and enjoy.
The physiology and the psychology behind ice baths
The idea behind immersing your body in a freezing tub of water has to do with vasoconstriction. When your body experiences cold temperature, blood vessels in your extremities (including all the muscles of your arms and legs) tighten or constrict, sending blood closer to your core (and heart) to maintain warmth. This works favorably for any athlete who has high levels of lactic acid in the blood following an intense workout. After the period of vasoconstriction in the ice bath, blood is quickly circulated back to your extremities upon exiting the cold environment in an attempt to warm the body. This blood is now oxygenated and has exchanged waste (including the lactic acid) with nutrients before traveling back to muscles in need of blood. As a result of the cold temperature and vasoconstriction, circulation is accelerated, causing accelerated muscle recovery. Lactic acid, which causes the burning sensation during workout and which normally pools in the muscles to later cause soreness, is efficiently flushed out of the body when you ice bath. Additionally, cold treatment is well known to help with inflammation. If you have any injury or irritated muscle that is difficult to ice on its own, dipping that part of your body into the ice bath is a great way to bring down inflammation.
Research in this field is limited and has produced varied results. One study indicates that cold water immersion may help rugby players recover by up to 6% more following a game as compared to a control group that experienced passive rest only. Importantly, the use of intermittent cold water immersion (keeping time in the ice bath to under 12 minutes) will be sufficient for cooling skeletal muscle. Skin reaches a lower temperature than muscle during the ice bath and quickly warms post ice bath while the deeper muscle continues to cool off for several minutes. Your muscle temperature does continue to drop linearly with the temperature of the ice bath, so you might stay in a true ice bath for a few minutes less than a cold water tub in a sports facility. Some studies have shown enhanced clearance of waste materials, such as phosphates and hydrogen that contribute to acid accumulation in the muscle. Following strenuous exercise, subjects who underwent cold water immersion at 8°C for 15 minutes had higher muscle pH values (pH=7.2) an hour post ice bath than subjects who did not undergo cold water immersion (pH=7.0). Those that took a bath thus reduced their muscle acidosis, enhancing their short-term recovery. Acidosis contributes to muscle fatigue and decreases the force-generating capacity of muscle so opportunity to mitigate this is favorable for recovery.
From years of personal experience, ice baths work for me. The research may be minimal, but jumping in a tub of freezing water for 10-12 minutes has saved my legs for many competitions and weeks of tough practice. My teammates and I would ice bath following a swim meet, especially when we had another meet the next day. Ice baths would tend to help mitigate soreness following a heavy lift in the weight room more than a cardio-based circuit. Those few minutes may seem extremely uncomfortable, but you’ll be thankful later when you have more spring in your step, kick, or jump. Remember that ice baths are not meant to replace your warm down post workout. Adding this aspect of muscle recovery in to your training routine may make a significant impact in the way you are able to bounce back from tiring competitions and carry momentum through the end of a hard week of training. Be strong, hop in that freezing tub, and give your body the recovery it deserves!
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Published online 2013 September 1. doi: 10.1186/2046-7648-2-26
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