Watch almost any sport or sports documentary on TV and, invariably, you’ll see athletes in ice baths. Cold water immersion has become a staple of post-training recovery for the sporting elite.
Ice baths are nothing new, and people in Scandinavian and Arctic countries have been immersing themselves in icy water and rolling in snow for generations. However, until relatively recently, the evidence supporting the use of ice baths has been largely anecdotal.
The news is that science has finally caught up with what Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, and Russians have known for hundreds of years – that chilling out in an ice bath offers a wide range of benefits.
That’s good because ice baths are NOT a comfortable experience, so you want to know that the benefits outweigh the unpleasantness of freezing your butt off!
In this article, we reveal the benefits of ice baths.
- What Is an Ice Bath, Anyway?
- The Benefits of Ice Baths
- 1. Decreased post-activity muscle soreness
- 2. Faster perceived recovery from intense workouts
- 3. Faster recovery from cardio
- 4. Reduced inflammation after high-impact and contact activities
- 5. Faster recovery after warm weather training
- 6. Stronger immune system
- 6. Reduced joint and muscle pain
- 7. Mental toughness
- 8. Deeper, longer sleep
- Drawbacks of Ice Baths
- Ice Bath Benefits – Wrapping Up
What Is an Ice Bath, Anyway?
Also called cold water immersion (CWI) therapy and cryotherapy, an ice bath involves standing, sitting, or lying in very cold water. How cold? Typically, the water temperature is somewhere between 50-59°F, so pretty darn chilly.
An ice bath session usually lasts 10-15 minutes, although newbies may need to start with 3-5 minutes and have the water a little warmer to become accustomed to this type of therapy.
Ice baths are typically used after intense training or competition to enhance recovery. For example, it’s common to use ice baths after contact sports, such as football or rugby, but athletes from all sports use this method of recovery enhancement.
While you can get specialist ice baths, creating your own at home is easy enough. Just fill your bathroom tub with cold water and then add bags of ice until you reach the desired temperature. Use a 3:1 ratio of water to ice, and make sure you leave enough room in your allow for the displacement caused by your body as you enter the water.
Alternatively, if you only want to ice your lower body, you could fill a deep garbage bin with water and ice and stand in it. This is a common practice in track and endurance sports.
The Benefits of Ice Baths
There is no getting away from it; standing or sitting in an ice bath can be unpleasant and even painful. It’s the part of training that a lot of athletes love to hate; they hate it at the time but love how they feel afterward.
So, are ice baths worth the discomfort? Check out these benefits and then decide!
1. Decreased post-activity muscle soreness
Delayed onset muscle soreness goes hand in hand with intense training and exhaustive competition. Inflammation, acute muscle damage, and the accumulation of metabolic waste can leave your muscles painful to move or even touch.
While muscle soreness is generally nothing to worry about, it can be debilitating. It could even prevent you from returning to training as soon as you might otherwise want to.
Research on MMA fighters suggests that ice baths can help reduce post-exercise soreness and pain (1). Less muscle soreness means you can get back to the gym quicker.
2. Faster perceived recovery from intense workouts
Your rate of recovery is actually very hard to measure. You often have to rely on how you feel and your actual rate of recovery will depend on how hard or how long you trained, your nutritional status, how much sleep you get, stress levels, etc.
In studies, athletes who ended their workout with ice baths perceived (felt) that they recovered faster (2). However, there were no physiological measures to support this.
That said, you know how you feel and whether you are still tired or are well-rested. So, despite being largely anecdotal, this study still supports the use of ice baths for enhanced recovery after intense training.
3. Faster recovery from cardio
It’s not just athletes from power and contact sports that may benefit from ice baths – endurance athletes can too. In another study, triathletes used ice baths between running and cycling workouts and reported feeling more recovered as a result (3).
This is a big deal for triathletes because invariably, these multi-sport athletes must train several times a day to improve their performance in all three triathlon disciplines – swimming, cycling, and running.
Despite being all about triathletes, this study reinforces the notion that ice baths can help you recover faster between intense workouts – both strength and endurance-type training.
4. Reduced inflammation after high-impact and contact activities
Training and playing sports like rugby, football, hockey, and wrestling invariably involve a lot of physical contact. Tackling and blocking mean hurling your body at your opponents and getting hit. Those hits lead to bruising, inflammation, and pain.
In many cases, while you may recover your energy levels quite quickly after a bout of impact sports, the inflammation caused by all those hits often takes longer to overcome. After all, they’re a form of soft-tissue injury.
MMA fighters reported feeling less sore after cold water immersion, which may be very welcome if you play a contact sport and need to get over those impacts quickly so you can play or train sooner (1 & 2).
5. Faster recovery after warm weather training
Depending on where you live, you may have to contend with training in hot temperatures. High temperatures can take a lot out of your body and leave you feeling drained. While staying hydrated is critical for warm-weather training, quickly getting your core temperature back to normal could help you recover faster (4).
Obviously, it’s probably not a good idea to go from running in 100-degree heat to jumping into an ice bath and cooling down too fast. So, gradually reduce your body temperature by having a cool shower, then a cold shower, and then finally climbing into your ice bath.
6. Stronger immune system
Sickness can derail almost any workout program, and even elite athletes can fall victim to viruses, germs, and bugs. That’s especially true when you are training hard and long, as intense workouts can compromise your immune system, particularly if you are getting close to being overtrained.
Cold water immersion may help boost your immune system so you can avoid or fight off illness more easily (5). Fewer sick days mean fewer missed workouts and better progress from your training.
6. Reduced joint and muscle pain
Intense training can take its toll on the muscles and joints. Years of hard workouts can leave you feeling beaten up and sore. Athletes with a lot of miles on the clock often spend as much time and energy on recovery and pain management as they do training!
Cold water therapy can help reduce muscle and joint pain in people with arthritis and fibromyalgia, and it could do the same thing for hard-charging athletes and exercisers. While this study used a cryotherapy (cold air) chamber, it’s not unreasonable to expect a similar effect on exercisers using ice baths (6).
7. Mental toughness
While no studies support this benefit, it makes sense that spending time in an uncomfortably cold ice bath could enhance mental toughness. After all, you have to voluntarily put yourself into an unpleasant environment and stay there for 10-15 minutes. This requires determination and the ability to tolerate increasing levels of discomfort.
A lot of team sports players take ice baths together, which can help with team bonding over a shared experience. This is another anecdotal benefit of ice bathing. Regardless, ice baths affect you physically AND mentally.
8. Deeper, longer sleep
You probably won’t fall asleep during an ice bath, but cold-water immersion may help you sleep more soundly that night (7). Sleep is a critical part of the post-exercise recovery equation. Anything that naturally helps you sleep deeper and longer could have a pronounced effect on your progress and subsequent performance.
Studies show that post-ice bath sleep is deeper and more relaxed compared to a control group who didn’t have an ice bath.
Drawbacks of Ice Baths
While research suggests that ice baths can do you good, there are a few drawbacks to consider, too. These include:
Cold water immersion can be very painful, especially if you go too cold too soon. Avoid this problem by gradually introducing ice baths and slowly building up your tolerance. Instead, begin with short, not very cold ice baths and increase over several weeks or months. Doing too much too soon could put you off ice baths for good!
Red, itchy skin
Immersion in an ice bath drives your blood deep into your body to maintain your core temperature. Then, as you warm up after immersion, the blood comes flooding back to the upper layers of your skin, causing redness. This increase in blood flow may also be accompanied by itchiness which, while only temporary, can be very distressing, especially for people with sensitive skin.
Not suitable for all populations
Some people are medically unsuited for ice baths. People who should not use ice baths include those with:
- High or low blood pressure
- Cardiovascular disease
- Heart conditions
- Circulatory problems
- Nerve problems
Some studies refute the benefits of ice baths
While several studies support ice baths, others suggest that ice baths don’t actually work (8). But, of course, this is often the case in sports and exercise science. Such opposing points of view can be the result of using different testing methods and the research subjects as much as the study subject itself.
However, it’s worth noting the power of the placebo effect. If you believe something is doing you good, it will probably have a positive outcome. So, even if ice baths do not empirically impact your fitness, recovery, or health, that doesn’t mean you won’t experience a host of psychologically driven benefits.
The placebo effect is VERY powerful!
Ice Bath Benefits – Wrapping Up
So, while some studies support the use of ice baths, others suggest that more usual recovery-boosting strategies (cardio massage, sleeping, eating) are just as effective. However, given that a lot of athletes swear they feel better after an ice bath, this form of treatment is still worth considering.
The best way to determine if it works for you is to try it for yourself. Build up to 10-15 minutes after your workouts, and maintain this practice for a few weeks to see how you feel. If you recover faster, sleep better, or have more energy, continue your ice baths and enjoy their benefits.
But, if you feel no better or worse after a month of ice baths, at least you will have tried them and can dismiss them based on your personal experience.
1. PubMed: The Physiological Response to Cold-Water Immersion Following A Mixed Martial Arts Training Session https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28177718/
2. PubMed: Cold Water Immersion Enhanced Athletes’ Wellness and 10-m Short Sprint Performance 24-h After a Simulated Mixed Martial Arts Combat https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30443221/
3. PubMed: Effect of Run Training and Cold-Water Immersion on Subsequent Cycle Training https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24626137/
4. PubMed: Effect of Cold Shower on Recovery from High-Intensity Cycling in the Heat https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31343603/
5. PubMed: Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4034215/
6. PubMed: Whole-Body Cryotherapy in Rehabilitation of Patients with Rheumatoid Diseases https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10832164/
7. PubMed: Effect of the Depth of Cold-Water Immersion on Sleep Architecture and Recovery Among Well-Trained Male Endurance Runners https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8044518/
8. PubMed: Is the Ice Bath Finally Melting? Cold Water Immersion Is No Greater Than Active Recovery Upon Local and Systemic Inflammatory Cellular Stress in Humans https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5350472/