Do ice baths help workout recovery?

A person in an ice bath.

After a long, hard workout or practice, nothing feels better than submerging your sore body in an ice bath to help soothe the pain. This toe-numbing experience is a technique many athletes use, but the research on the effectiveness of ice baths is mixed. Is it worth the goosebumps?

Why am I always sore when working out?

When you exercise intensely, microtrauma and tears in your muscle fibers can happen. This damage will stimulate muscle cell activity and help your muscles repair, strengthen and adapt to the stress of the workout. This also explains the delay in when you feel pain and soreness, which usually happens 12 to 72 hours after exercise. Too much soreness can detract from your progress, requiring longer recovery and keeping you from consistently training hard.

How do ice baths work?

The cold temperature can bring down your metabolism, causing a slowdown in your breathing and sweating. The cold temperature will also reduce swelling and tissue breakdown and shift lactic acid away from your muscles.

When you get out of an ice bath, your muscle tissues and your entire body will begin to warm up, which causes your circulation to increase and your muscles to relax.

Cold showers could help, too, but immersion is more beneficial because the whole body is submerged and getting that compression and cold effect more uniformly. With a shower, you're just spraying specific parts of your body. However, if you don't have access to a cold plunge or ice bath, a cold shower can suffice and is a good alternative, delivering many of the same benefits, though not as extensive as a full ice bath.

Are ice baths good for you?

Done properly, ice baths for recovery may be worth trying. There have been some positive benefits reported in using ice baths after endurance activities.

However, ice baths may decrease your gains in strength and muscle growth. A 2015 study in the Journal of Physiology showed reduced long-term gains in muscle mass and strength, which is in line with the findings of a 2014 study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, which showed decreases in strength using cold immersion. 

Can ice baths make you sick?

Taking ice baths could put you at risk for:

  • Hypothermia
  • Nerve damage
  • Pain
  • Complications in anyone with cardiovascular disease or diabetes and neuropathies

How long should you ice bath for?

 Immersion should be 10 to 20 minutes in water that’s between 50 and 59 degrees.

How often should you ice bath?

You can take ice baths daily or multiple times a week. There’s no recommended limit. Generally speaking, if your goal is to build the strength or size of your muscles, it’s best to take an ice bath 24 to 48 hours after your training session. This allows time for the inflammatory process, which is necessary for adaptation.

As always, it’s extremely important to use ice baths with caution. It’s best to do cold baths with at least one other person and in a controlled and safe environment where you can safely rewarm your body. Having someone else there is important if one of you has an unexpected reaction and needs help.

What are some other recovery techniques besides ice baths?

  • Low-intensity activity often referred to as a cooldown
  • Foam rolling, which is rolling on a foam cylinder for a deep tissue massage
  • Stretching
  • Massage
  • Warm water bath, which promotes muscle relaxation, circulation and can reduce soreness
  • Sleep

Will ice baths help you lose weight?

They can. When you’re exposed to cold temperatures, your body burns a lot of calories in the process of warming your body back up to a temperature of about 98.6 F.

When you take an ice bath, you activate and even produce more brown fat cells in your body, one of two types of fat cells that every person has. The other type of fat cells in your body is white fat cells, which are far more common in your body than brown fat cells.

The primary function of brown fat cells is to make heat, and they help your body control blood sugar and insulin levels. Immersing yourself in ice baths has been shown to help turn some of the white fat cells into brown fat cells, which can help you lose weight.

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