An ice
bath is a form of recovery involving an athlete submerging almost their entire
body in ice water. Athletes have been encouraged to use this method after and
between periods of intense physical activity to speed up the body’s recovery
process. After years of performing this technique without question, trainers
and athletes were warned by researchers proposing that the effects of an ice
bath could in fact be counterproductive.

Favourable
opinions regarding ice baths have been influenced by the success of leading sports
people like Andy Murray and Jessica Ennis-Hill, who implement the cold-water
recovery into their training routines.1 Icing is generally an
athlete’s instinctive response to injuries. Applying cold to the affected area
is thought to reduce inflammation and constrict blood vessels, consequently
forcing excess fluid away from built up areas. It has been suggested that once
the ice is removed from the area, the blood flow is increased which speeds the
circulation and delivers oxygen to the damaged tissue. Ice baths are believed
to assist similarly in recovery but further allow an athlete to be fully
submerged, exposing all muscle groups to the ice water.
In 2004, a literature review on the ability of cryotherapy to affect soft
tissue injury healing, studied controlled tests to determine the effectiveness
of icing an injury. The results demonstrated that cryotherapy does assist in
relieving pain, but no further conclusion can be made about the therapy’s
ability to speed up the healing process. The results were as follows;

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–         
“Ice
alone was better for pain after knee surgery when compared to no ice, but
swelling and range of motion were not affected.”

–         
“Ice
was no more effective than rehab in reducing swelling, pain, and range of
motion.”

–         
“Ice
and compression were better than ice alone at pain reduction.” 2

An
experimental study from the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport also
provides evidence that promotes the use of ice baths. The study involved 9 athletes
completing two runs on three separate occasions. For the first test, the
participants took 8C ice bath after their initial run. The next test involved
the runners sitting in a 15C ice bath and the last test had the athletes resting
for 15 minutes between runs. After the respective recovery session, the
athletes were made to complete their second workout by running as far as they
could to exhaustion. Results showed that the athletes were able to work for 3-4
minutes longer after the ice baths.3 This suggests that the ice
baths reduced the inflammation in the runners’ muscles, which decreased pain
and fatigue and prepared the athletes for their second run.

In
contrast to the researches promoting ice baths, there are more recent studies which
suggest that the recovery method can actually be detrimental rather than
beneficial to an athlete’s conditioning. In a casual athlete who requires
muscle pain relief, an ice bath might be appropriate in meeting their requirements
but researchers have advised that an elite athlete attempting to gain muscle
should avoid using ice baths all together. This is because an ice bath does in
fact alleviate inflammation, which is actually required to help the muscles
repair. The mitigation of the swelling and the muscle’s inability to repair
results in the reduction of muscle generation. 4

 

Dr Llion
Roberts and Dr Jonathan Peake led a study which had 21 active men undertaking strength
training twice a week for 12 weeks.
The group was split into two with one immersing themselves in a 10C ice baths
for 10 minutes post work out, while the other group warmed down on bikes.
At the end of the study, the group who actively warmed down on the bikes after
the workouts had increased there muscle mass and strength more than that of the
ice bath group.
In another study, researchers took biopsies from athletes after they had
completed single leg exercises and recovery. Selected athletes used the ice
bath method, while others actively recovered. It was observed that the samples
taken from those who had ice baths showed that the recovery method had actually
blunted cell activity and pathways needed to develop muscle strength. 5 Accordingly, researchers
discourage ice baths for athlete’s whose intention are to develop muscle
strength.

Another
aspect of ice baths that should be considered is the placebo effect. This is
‘are ice baths actually making us feel better, or are we just convincing
ourselves that they work?’ The conversation researchers did a study to
determine exactly that.
30 men were recruited and asked to undertake a maximal cycling workout.
Following the bout, they performed one of following three recovery sessions;
– A 10C ice bath.
– A 35C bath.
– A 35C placebo (a bath containing ‘recovery oil’ (skin cleanser)).
After being led to believe that what they thought was ‘recovery oil’ was just
as effective as an ice bath, the placebo participants rated their recovery
experience similarly to that of the ice bath participants, and went on to
achieve similar recovery leg extension strength. Although the hot bath recovery
and the placebo were identical, the placebo group rated their recovery
substantially more effective and the deception in the group actually resulted
in a faster recovery leg extension.
This study proposes that if an ice bath doesn’t significantly increase the
speed of an athlete’s recovery period, the belief in the recovery method has an
effect on the performance of the athlete.6

The
research methods used in these studies, based on the information provided,
indicate that the results of the investigations are likely to be valid.
However, the reliability of the research may be brought into question as a
result of the small sample sizes and the use of selective allocations rather
than random population samples.

In
summary, the afore mentioned studies on the posed focus question are
inconclusive. The effectiveness of ice baths depends predominantly on the
purpose of use. Where the athlete requires muscle pain relief, an ice bath can
be beneficial. The post-exercise recovery method can also assist in the
reduction of inflammation, before an athlete performs an additional bout of
activity.
However, inflammation is necessary for the muscles to rebuild, so when an athlete’s
goal is to increase muscle strength or mass, ice baths may be counterproductive.
Ice baths have been implemented in all levels of sport from local and regional
to state and national levels. Education on the targeted use of ice baths to
achieve specific outcomes will likely result in minor improvements in
performance.

1 http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20161209-do-athletes-need-to-take-ice-baths

2 https://www.marksdailyapple.com/should-we-ice-injuries/

3 https://sites.psu.edu/siowfa15/2015/10/30/the-true-strength-of-ice-baths/

4 http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20161209-do-athletes-need-to-take-ice-baths

5 https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/08/150811103654.htm

6 https://theconversation.com/amp/ice-bath-after-exercise-the-benefits-might-be-in-your-head-33597