The unknown, scientific facts on ice baths and cold water immersion!

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Sunday morning.  The breeze fills your nostrils with the scent of succulent, salty air.  Despite the cold, your eyes are drawn to the beach. Specifically, to a solitary figure wading the shallows in football shorts.  You think, why would anyone subject themselves to these Antarctic conditions?

Well the answer is, they saw it on TV. Yes, sporting teams across the globe can be seen hanging out in ice baths, or immersing themselves in freezing cold beaches following training or matches.  Sure, they have multi-million dollar sports scientists implementing these programs. But based on science, is this actually the right thing to do?  Science, if you would!


The theory behind cold water immersion:

Immersing oneself in cold water is said to cause the blood vessels in the limbs to constrict. This is then proposed to pump the metabolites – the crap you accumulate during exercise – away from the limbs, making you recover better.

Another theory is that the cold stops the inflammatory cascade that occurs following muscle damaging exercise in its path.  Less inflammation means less pain and ultimately better recovery for the athlete.

Both theories are awesome and make sense.  But if you’ve read any of my previous blogs, you’ll know that theory often doesn’t translate to practice. So let’s have a look and see if it does!

Cold Water Swimming Championships EDITORS NOTE CONTENT.(left to right) Charity swimmers Asha Messia, Stephanie Calladine and Graham Smith brave the cold with humour in man-kinis and a bikini during the National Cold Water Swimming Championship at Tooting Bec, London today.

The science on cold water immersion:

The most important study conducted on this topic to date, was a 2012 Cochrane review.  Cochrane reviews compile a load of studies on a topic and then do a bit of a statistical analysis on the pooled data.  In this review, cold water immersion was found to:

  • Moderately reduce ratings of muscle soreness at 24-96 hours following exercise.
  • Reduce feelings of fatigue by 10%
  • Enhance physical recovery by 10%.

While very much positive, the review concluded that it had not been established whether there may be negative effects associated with cold water immersion and whether it is in fact safe.

Thankfully, an extremely recent study had a look at one of the potential negative effects. This study compared having an ice bath to active recovery following a weightlifting session.  The group that took the active recovery path reported 17% greater levels of muscle mass and 19% greater muscle strength. Additionally, it was found that satellite cell numbers were lower following ice therapy. Satellite cells help give birth to new muscle cells and therefore, promote increases in muscle mass. This study indicates that ice therapy blocks these cells and in turn muscle mass.


Is it healthful:

First of all, if you’ve got a heart condition, I’d probably avoid this recovery technique – with studies not yet confirming cold water immersion’s safety.  That aside, ice baths appear slightly to moderately healthful at improving muscle soreness, fatigue and physical recovery following matches.

In contrast, ice baths following training, particularly strength training, appear unhealthful as they prevent increases in muscle mass and strength.

I hope this has been healthful. What do you think? Will you be adding ice to your bath this evening?



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