Ice-cold baths are legendary among athletes. Paula Radcliff, the champion women’s marathoner, rugby athletes and tennis players swear that ice baths help their recovery and contribute to impressive performances. Little science proves the benefits of cold baths for post-workout recovery, but the placebo effect may be enough to benefit you.
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Cold water supposedly causes a tightening of the blood vessels, draining blood and all the waste products out of the legs and, therefore, speeding recovery. When you emerge from the bath, fresh blood with renewed nutrients returns to the muscles, or so the theory goes. Immersion in cold water keeps your muscles cool for a longer time than the simple application of ice packs. Submerging yourself into an icy bath forces your entire body to be treated for soreness and pain, rather than just the most acute areas that you might address with an ice pack or rubdown.
Despite the legends of ice baths, research suggests they do not speed recovery or influence future performance. In the “British Journal of Sports Medicine,” Australian researchers found that participants who took an ice bath after performing leg exercises experienced no difference in pain levels, swelling, blood tests that indicate muscle damage or performance on a hopping test 24 to 48 hours post-bath when compared to participants who took tepid baths. In fact, the ice bathers reported more pain in their muscles. A study in the “Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research” found that among 26 rugby players who took ice baths, contrast baths -- alternating cold and warm baths -- and no recovery measures, the ice bathers experienced a negative effect in their blood levels of a chemical that measures muscle damage and only a trivial improvement in a 300-meter performance test. The Australian researchers recommend reconsidering the practice of using ice baths based on this study, noting that they may actually be detrimental.
If you find icy cold baths work for you, then you may be experiencing a placebo effect. Another potential therapy post workout is contrast bathing. The “Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research” study found that contrast baths provided a trivial improvement in blood chemical levels indicating damage, but did exhibit a medium to large effect in improvements in the 300-meter test. An earlier study in the “Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport” found that contrast bathing post workout did decrease blood lactate concentration and heart rate in future performances when compared to active recovery, but did not result in improved performance in subsequent workouts.
If you still want to try cold bathing post workout, follow specific strategies. Cold baths for recovery should be about 54 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit–going colder offers no additional benefits and may cause fainting or muscle damage. Stay in the bath for five to eight minutes only; any longer may result in tense muscles. A warm shower or bath about 30 minutes after your ice bath can help reduce tightness.