Health: The truth about ice baths

Miracle recovery aid or sporting myth?

The thought of freezing your bits off in an ice bath at the end of a ride or race might not be that appealing, but for many professional cycling teams, the icy soak is the first post-race port-of-call.

Used to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and inflammation, the ice bath supposedly speeds muscle recovery, but the truth behind it isn’t quite as clear.

Keep your cool

Ice baths work by decreasing your nerve impulses – lowering your perception of pain – slowing the flow of enzymes to the muscles, and reducing the swelling and inflammation that occurs as your muscles repair the microdamage done during intense exercise. Theoretically, this speeds the recovery process.

Research hasn’t always agreed with the theory. A 2007 study found that cold water immersion offered athletes no benefit for muscle pain, swelling or function. However, this test used water between 1°C and 5°C and, according to Jonathan Leeder, exercise physiologist for the English Institute of Sport, the optimal temperature is 10°C to 15°C. Colder temperatures will have the opposite effect as your body attempts to preserve itself from shutting down.

“Cold water immersion can reduce the physiological stress of intense exercise the day after a race or event,” says Leeder, who’s working with the British Track Cycling Team. “However, the stress is a sign of the muscle adapting and repairing itself, which is what enables it to grow in strength.” So stopping this process could be counter-productive.

Some athletes use a cold bath followed by a hot bath, but there has been little evidence that this helps. “This is called contrast therapy, but we haven’t seen it speed muscle recovery even though athletes often feel as though it does,” says Leeder. “This is either the placebo effect or it may be that contrast therapy works in a way that we’re not yet able to measure.”

Although you might be keen for a hot soak after a long ride, Leeder warns this may have a negative impact. “The increase in temperature will up the blood flow to the damaged muscle tissue, having a pro-inflammatory effect.” This was confirmed by a 2008 study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, which also found that ice baths may help recovery when athletes repeat high-intensity efforts on successive days. “When you need to push on the next day, a cold water recovery technique might reduce pain and inflammation,” says Leeder.

DIY?

Making do with a quick cold shower won’t do the job. “The cold won’t have a chance to permeate through to the core of the muscle, which is where the physiological stress has occurred,” says Leeder. Being submerged in a bath, or something deeper, is better. “Makeshift wheelie bin ice baths are best as the pressure caused by 1.5m of water above your legs increases the impact of the cold water,” he says.

To try it yourself, fill a deep bath with cold water and ice, use a thermometer to check the temperature is between 10°C and 15°C and stay put for 10 minutes to let it chill your muscles. But only do this if you need to carry on the next day, like if you’re on a tour or a long-distance ride. Otherwise, listen to your aching body and give it a day off training to recover, as the muscle pain is actually a key part of the muscles adapting.

Other recovery aids

If you don't think ice baths are for you, there are several other options to aid your recovery. These include:

Compression tights: Promoting blood circulation and increasing oxygen flow to the muscles, compression tights are claimed to aid recovery. Research has found that they decrease post-exercise lactate concentration, helping to ease muscle soreness.

Massage: By manipulating muscles through massage, tension and stress is released. Research on this is limited, but a study conducted in 2005 found that massage can help relieve DOMS.

Stretching: This relaxes your muscles and helps release tension post-ride. Only stretch until you feel a slight pull in the muscle and not pain. A study in 2009 claimed that stretching before exercise can cause injury (warming up, however is advisable), so make sure you only stretch out after a workout.

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