The Typical Ice Bath Practice
Cold exposure (i.e. cryotherapy) has gained a lot of interest in the past few years. The most common cold therapy are ice baths. This is often mistakenly taken to an extreme where athletes believe that the colder the water, the better the recovery. However at 15 degrees, ice baths have shown to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). In addition, likely you or someone you know has done an ice bath and felt better. Certainly, the perceived feeling of recovery should not go unnoted – but does science actually support improved performance from this practice?
Do Ice Baths Help You Feel Better?
If you don’t currently subscribe to the extremely uncomfortable practice of ice baths, good news! Ice baths are not the only way, nor the best way, to accelerate your recovery. The question then becomes, “do ice baths have any impact on our recovery and performance”? The answer is, “it depends”. In terms of recovery, it will depend on how you measure recovery. If recovery is defined as simply feeling better, then ice baths seem to be beneficial in reducing muscle soreness. However, this reduction is muscle soreness is in comparison to a passive recovery method (Ascensao et. al 2011). Another study looking at preserving endurance performance also compared an ice bath to no recover. From this, we cannot conclude that ice baths are the BEST method of recovery, but rather they are better than no recovery at all.
Ice Baths and Performance
If recovery is defined as your ability to perform at your next training session, we see even more discrepancies. There is an incredibly large variance between studies, making it difficult to draw conclusions. For example, one study reported decreases in perception of pain following an ice bath, but performance was unchanged (Doeringer et al. 2017). In comparison, another study (Ascensao et. al 2011) did report improvements in both pain and performance. Unfortunately, both of these studies, when assessed by the Oxford quality scoring system, were determined to be of poor quality (1/5 for Ascensao et. al 2011and 2/5 for Doeringer et al. 2017) (Jinnah et al. 2019).
Ice Bath Alternative
Although ice baths have little support in literature, most people who take an ice bath tend to feel a reduction in muscle soreness. These feelings of reduced muscle soreness can be extremely beneficial in improving your psychological state for subsequent competitions. However, setting up an ice bath can be time consuming and rather painful. Therefore, alternative recovery methods would be of value to athletes who are not already dedicated to the ice bath.
Chan and colleges (2016) found that short term performance measures were nearly identical when ice baths were compared to an active recovery method (cycling). The advantage of doing an active recovery post training session is that you can continue doing the activity you were doing, just with reduced intensity. For example, this study used a 15 minute cycling test, then measured the recovery response after 15 minutes of easy cycling. If you are a runner, you could instead do a slow run or walk following your run workout.
It seems that some sort of recovery activity tends to alleviate muscle soreness and can reduce inflammation and improve performance. Contrary to popular belief, however, it seems the ice bath isn’t necessarily the best mode of recovery. Although it does seem to help alleviate feelings of muscle soreness, its applicability to performance is questionable.