Jan 29, 2015
Ice Baths Get Chilly Review

By Nate Dougherty

On the surface, it sounds like medieval torture. Filling up a tub with ice and jumping in following a workout can bring moments of incredible pain to an athlete, but those who dare to take the dip say the feeling afterward makes the discomfort well worth it. But as the steamy summer days continue and outdoor practices and competitions pick up, new research shows that athletic trainers may want to think twice about having athletes submerge into ice water to relieve cramping muscles.

A new study suggests that ice baths–immersing muscles in icy water to prevent damage and alleviate soreness–not only fail to speed up recovery after a workout, they may actually do more harm than good. An Australian study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine compared athletes who dipped into ice baths to those who used tepid baths following a workout. The result: those who used the ice baths reported more pain after 24 hours than their counterparts.

Because the study relied on participants to report their level of pain–a measure difficult to quantify–some find the results don’t carry much weight. “I don’t find it hard to believe that the ice doesn’t have any long-term benefit, although I would question whether the ice group really did feel more pain after 24 hours than the tepid group,” John Brewer, Director of the Lucozade Sports Science Academy, told BBC News.

“The problem with pain is that it is subjective and very hard to measure,” Brewer continues. “And because it’s subjective, there may even be a placebo effect on those who take the cold bath. It’s part of their ritual, it finishes off the endurance test, and many clearly report that it makes them feel better.”

It’s not just baths to treat sore muscles that’s been questioned. When it comes to using ice baths to treat hyperthermic athletes, some research has already shown there is no significant difference between using ice and cold water. A 2002 National Athletic Trainers’ Association study that looked at 17 heat-acclimated runners after a hilly run found both cold water and ice water helped bring down rectal temperatures at about the same rate.

“Given the similarities in cooling rates and rectal temperatures between ice-water immersion and cold-water immersion, either mode of cooling is recommended for treating the hyperthermic individual,” the study’s conclusion read.

The knock on ice baths, Brewer says, is that the benefits may be all in the heads of those using ice baths. After a few minutes of the painful submersion, the body overcomes the flight response and sends a rush of blood through the muscles that effectively flushes toxins like lactic acid. But for reaching deep into muscles, ice baths are also believed to be more effective than ice packs, which mainly work on surface muscles.

“When an individual removes an ice pack after the typical 20-minute application, temperatures within the muscles increase instantly,” Craig Ashley, Athletic Trainer at Saint Andrew’s School in Boca Raton, Fla., told Running Times Magazine. “Even after the conclusion of the treatment, the muscles will continue to cool.”

Much of the evidence in support of ice baths comes from the mouths of athletes themselves. Without using scientific measurements or even a full understanding of what’s going on inside their muscles, many of these athletes reach a simple conclusion–ice baths make them feel better.

“After the first few tortuous minutes I got used to the water,” writes recreational runner Mary Kay Robinson in The Bellingham Herald. “It actually started to feel good on my muscles. I drank my hot tea and cooled off in the tub for 20 minutes. I was chilled after getting out and put on a warm sweatshirt. I had to wait at least 30 minutes before taking a hot shower.

“After that wonderful shower, I ate breakfast,” she continues. “I felt great. My muscles felt fine.”

For more information on beating heat-related illness, see “Hot But Not Bothered” and “When It’s Hot” from Training & Conditioning.

Nate Dougherty is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

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