The Cooling Popularity of Ice Baths
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Article republished with permission from www.projectunited.com.au
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Ice baths were the rage a year or two ago among athletes of all disciplines. Since then, there have been a few studies conducted claiming that ice baths are either ineffective or at least no more effective than a regular warm bath. So where are we at now?
Ice baths concept
Ice baths are exactly what they sound like – a bath full of cold water and some ice (not just ice – that could result in ice burns) in which an athlete, post-activity, would lay (or stand) in a bath for approximately 15 minutes, or in cycles – two minutes in, one minute out. The rationale behind ice bathing was to provide numerous benefits such as reducing inflammation, compressing muscles through hydrostatic pressure, improve circulation, and flushing out lactic acid. Depending on the
victim participant, it also helped to feel better both immediately and in coming days. Whilst this process has been used for years, in the last 12 months or so, a few questions have been raised as to the effectiveness of this type of recovery.
The green corner (the supporters)
Researchers in Northern Ireland found that ice baths were as effective in recovery as other methods such as compression clothing and stretching routines. Muscle soreness was considered to have decreased by approximately 20% and may play some role in reducing the effects of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Another study conducted in 2012 suggested that ice baths could be responsible for significantly increasing recovery time. After a training session, a group of runners were asked to partake in an ice bath for 15 minutes, and then run at a sub-maximal pace for as long as they could. Those who had been in the ice baths lasted longer than those who had not.
One other benefit of ice baths that may not have any actual long term physiological outcome is that an ice bath can bypass that hot and stressed state of fatigue encountered after training. The temperature itself whilst confronting can be very invigorating.
The red corner (the critics)
There have been a lot of studies conducted and research done to suggest that ice baths might be of the unicorn class. That is, mythical (sorry kids).
One of the major findings is that the idea of the ice bath is nothing more than a placebo. Despite there being no apparent benefit of a cold bath from a warm bath, participants claim to recover better after an ice bath. Further, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology found that ice baths suppress the cell signalling response that regulates muscle growth, and consequently resulted in less muscle growth in that particular study group.
Generally speaking, the benefits of ice baths have not been studied all that significantly. According to members of the American College of Sports Medicine, they found 17 studies conducted since 1929 in various databases that had any kind of scientific value, the majority of which were in relation to resistance training and high intensity exercise. In other words, the handful of scientific studies that have been conducted only applied to very specific exercise protocols rendering them largely irrelevant for a lot of athletes.
Whilst ice baths may provide some benefits, those benefits can generally be experienced in other more comfortable ways such as a warm bath, a stretch session, or some foam roller work. Equally, these methods do not come with the consequences of ice baths as listed above.
So generally it is a win for comfort. A lot of exercising and fitness is about discipline and sacrifices, but dropping the ice bath from the recovery routine is bound to get a warm reception.