Introduction

So you’ve just completed an intense training session, what’s your next move; do you jump straight into a hot shower to relax your body and your fatigued muscles or do you prefer to simply change quickly and jump in the car before heading home? Many of us have our pre and post workout rituals which we tend to follow religiously, but how many of us base these rituals on scientific research?

It has been common practice amongst many professional athletes to plunge themselves into an ice water bath immediately following the cessation of their training session. It is thought that this method helps to eliminate muscular soreness and pain whilst at the same time enhancing recovery rates. This article explores this recovery technique, considering the scientific explanations and potential benefits.

The Recovery Process

During intense training sessions, microtrauma is caused in the target muscles, resulting in tiny tears in their fibers. Over a period of time, the muscles which have been damaged repair themselves by laying down new muscle fibers. If this training stress is continuously placed through the muscles over a period of time, then enhancements in both strength and size result. In its acute phase however, up to 3 days following exercise, the target muscle can feel both sore and weakened. This phenomenon is known as DOMS or delayed onset of muscular soreness.

Ice baths are thought to assist this initial phase through the following:

  • Constricting the surrounding blood vessels.
  • Enhancing the removal process of lactic acid and other waste products.
  • Reducing both swelling and fiber breakdown within the target muscle.

In theory, the hypothesised effects of ice baths following exercise make sense physiologically. If the microtrauma caused to the target muscle can be delayed or reduced by the effects listed above, then in theory muscular soreness and pain would ultimately be minimised and recovery rates enhanced. So is this supported by research? In a word, no!

The research into this topic area is – to put it mildly – lacking. Experimentation with athletes have utilised numerous methods and techniques but findings are both inconclusive and contradictory. Some of these flaws fall around the optimal times for immersion and its temperature.

Conclusion

So what would FitnessBeans recommend? Without trying to sit on the fence, this question, like many other fitness related questions will fall down to personal preference. A lack of any conclusive evidence, makes it hard to give definitive answers and so the method is very much trial and error. Unfortunately, you will have to determine for yourself, firstly, whether your body responds positively to the ice bath and then on from that, the temperature and timings that work best for you.

It may be that an ice bath is not required and a simple cold shower will do the trick, now where have you heard that before? The only thing that is conclusive is that there are no related negative effects, even if the positive ones are debatable.

So there you have it, an inconclusive end to an inconclusive article. Before signing off, it’s important to note two keys points in relation to this recovery method; firstly, alternative techniques such as active recovery and cool downs should not be overlooked, independent of whether you chose to undertake this method or not.

Secondly, despite a lack of conclusive evidence, many professional athletes, including those which are considered elite, undertake this method on a daily basis and swear by it. So whether its effects are physiological, psychological, placebo or a combination of the three, if it produces the desired effects for you and your training then nothing else really matters.