Do Post-exercise Ice Baths Improve Performance?

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Do post-exercise ice baths improve performance?

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Post-exercise ice baths can offer several recovery benefits, including reduced muscle soreness and fatigue, and potentially improved performance in subsequent exercise sessions. However, the extent of these benefits can vary based on the specific conditions of CWI application. While CWI is a valuable recovery tool, further research is needed to fully understand its long-term effects on athletic performance.

Post-exercise recovery is a critical aspect of athletic performance, particularly in high-intensity sports. Among various recovery modalities, cold water immersion (CWI) or ice baths have gained popularity. This article explores whether post-exercise ice baths improve performance by examining recent research findings.

Mechanisms of Cold Water Immersion

Cold water immersion is believed to facilitate recovery through several physiological mechanisms. These include reducing muscle temperature, decreasing blood flow, and minimizing inflammation and muscle damage. CWI is also thought to alleviate hyperthermia and reduce cardiovascular strain, which can enhance recovery and subsequent performance.

Effects on Performance and Recovery

Muscle Soreness and Fatigue

Several studies have shown that CWI can significantly reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and perceived exertion. For instance, a meta-analysis found that CWI effectively reduces muscle soreness and accelerates fatigue recovery, making it a recommended practice for athletes immediately after exercise. Another study reported that ice baths decreased the perception of leg pain and fatigue, suggesting a valid alternative for managing post-exercise recovery.

Physical Performance

Research indicates mixed results regarding the impact of CWI on physical performance. One study found no significant differences in performance markers between groups undergoing CWI, contrast baths, and passive recovery. However, trends suggested that hydrotherapy might offer slight performance benefits over passive rest. Another study demonstrated that CWI improved performance in a second bout of exercise, supporting its potential role as an ergogenic aid.

Neuromuscular Recovery

Cold therapy has been shown to reduce perceptions of pain but did not significantly hasten the recovery of neuromuscular properties following high-intensity exercise. This suggests that while CWI may alleviate discomfort, it might not directly enhance muscle contractile recovery.

Long-Term Benefits

The long-term benefits of CWI are still under investigation. Some studies suggest that CWI can improve day-to-day training performance and physiological recovery, particularly in endurance and intermittent exercise modalities. However, the overall effects on long-term performance remain inconclusive.

Optimal Conditions for CWI

The effectiveness of CWI can vary based on the method and conditions of application. Whole-body immersion appears to be more beneficial than partial immersion, and the timing and temperature of the water also play crucial roles. For instance, whole-body cold-water immersion showed more significant performance improvements compared to immersing only the legs or arms.



Do post-exercise ice baths improve performance?

James Broatch has answered Unlikely

An expert from Victoria University in Exercise Physiology, Musculoskeletal Science

Whether an athlete has endured the repeated joint stresses of a marathon run, or the relentless battery of hits during a football match, many will opt for a post-activity polar plunge into an ice-cold bath.

There is method to this madness, though – many studies show that ice baths allow athletes to recover faster, train harder and ultimately perform better, and are thought to accelerate the body’s recovery, preparing it for the next gruelling training session.

Given the subjective nature of muscle soreness, might the supposed benefits of ice baths be psychological? It is perfectly plausible that an athlete may simply expect the cold stimulus to help recovery and in fact, a study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise by me and colleagues at Victoria University shows this may be the case.

Ice is nice

Ice baths are believed to improve the recovery of strength, power and flexibility, as well as recovery from muscle damage and swelling – but we aren’t entirely sure why they have this effect. Recent research endorses the use of ice baths solely for alleviating muscle soreness following strenuous exercise, with its role on muscle function less clear.

Previous research on ice baths has overlooked the possibility of a placebo effect, a fascinating phenomenon by which a normally ineffective treatment may result in improvements. The intriguing influence of the placebo effect has long been acknowledged in medicine and medical research, often used as a therapeutic intervention and routinely controlled for in clinical trials for over 50 years.

The placebo effect is so strong that it has even been controlled for in the testing of new surgical techniques. For example, patients having a knee arthroscope to treat arthritis reported similar improvements in knee pain and function as those who received a placebo or “sham” surgical procedure.

The placebo effect has also been shown to influence sport performance, where simply expecting an intervention to have a positive effect can improve performance. A 2008 study showed an 8% decrease in perceived fatigue and a 12% increase in leg extension strength when supplying a caffeine placebo.

Mind power

So, are ice baths actually helping our muscles to recover, or is it all in our heads?

Our research investigated this issue, comparing the effects of an ice bath with a placebo condition that participants were tricked into thinking was as effective as an ice bath.

We recruited 30 young, healthy men who we considered “recreationally active” and got them to perform a maximal cycling bout (4 x 30s “all-out” sprints on a bike) followed by one of three recovery conditions:

  1. an ice bath (around 10C)
  2. a warm bath control (around 35C)
  3. a placebo (around 35C).

The placebo participants were shown a fake brochure detailing the benefits of a newly-developed “recovery oil”, and were led to believe it was as effective as an ice bath for the recovery of athletic performance.

To deceive them, we simply put a common skin cleanser into the bath, in plain sight of the participants, immediately before their bath.

Interestingly, participants in both the ice bath and placebo conditions rated their belief in the benefits of their assigned recovery condition similarly, which in turn translated into a similar recovery of leg extension strength over a 48-hour post-exercise period.

On top of this, the recovery of leg strength was faster for the placebo condition when compared with the warm bath control, even though the two conditions were identical.

By deceiving participants into thinking they were receiving a beneficial treatment, subjective ratings of psychological well-being were improved, and a superior performance was witnessed. These results support the notion that belief has a powerful effect on exercise performance.

Where to next? Smart coaches can harness this belief effect to maximise the benefits of everything that they do with athletes. This is particularly important for the so called placebo effect “responders”, as it is well documented that some individuals show remarkable responses to placebo interventions, while others may not at all.

A strong belief in ice baths, combined with any potential physiological benefits, will maximise its potential to enhance an athlete’s recovery from exercise. For the rest of us, a warm bath will do just fine.

I have adapted this answer from my original article in The Conversation


Do post-exercise ice baths improve performance?

Llion Roberts has answered Uncertain

An expert from Griffith University in Exercise Physiology, Musculoskeletal Science

Ice baths or swims in the freezing ocean, also known as “cold water immersion”, are an immensely popular way to recover from exercise. They’re used by athletes of all abilities worldwide after many different types of training.

Ice baths are used to reduce symptoms of muscle soreness, and maintain the results gained from training sessions in strength and endurance. However, a recent study found these effects could be little more than placebo. What does the rest of the evidence say?

For both reducing muscle soreness and maintaining results from strength and endurance training, there is evidence ice baths have positive results in the short term.

Cold water immersion is reported to be most effective when used in a temperature range of 11-15°C, and for a duration of 11-15 minutes. Despite this, a lack of consistency between experiments makes it difficult to develop evidence-based guidelines.

Regardless of the type of cold water immersion used, a growing dichotomy of evidence exists relating to the use of cold water immersion for recovery after exercise, and to promote lasting effects from strength and endurance exercise.

After strength training

Somewhat surprisingly, after strength exercise, cold water immersion may in fact hinder the benefits of exercise.

Recently, and for the first time, my colleagues and I comprehensively examined the short- and long-term effects of using cold water immersion after strength exercise.

We found large reductions and/or blunting of the desired results from strength training such as increasing strength and muscle mass, and cellular improvements within the muscle. This was most likely a result of the cold water negatively interfering with the natural protein and cellular responses that happen in the muscle after each strength session.

An accumulation of these negative responses will have an effect on strength and muscle mass. These findings greatly expand on a couple of previous investigations that started to reveal this detrimental effect – on muscle strength and how blood vessels positively adapt to change.

After endurance training

Emerging evidence shows that cold water immersion positively impacts the “powerhouses” of the muscle – the mitochondria. These generate the energy our cells need to function properly. Mitochondria change significantly after endurance exercise. Therefore, combining endurance exercise with cold water immersion may have double the effect.

This may be a result of cold water immersion increasing the short-term activity of a gene called PGC-1a. This gene is referred to as the “master regulator” of changes in the mitochondria.

After it is activated by interacting with other important proteins, this gene initiates mitochondrial changes, such as increasing their size, activity, and/or the proteins within the mitochondria that allow them to function properly. Regularly increasing the activity of this gene with cold water immersion could lead to enhancing the results of endurance exercise.

After sports matches

While training or undertaking competitive events like triathlons, performing (and recovering) optimally is critical. In these instances, evidence suggests cold water immersion is a viable recovery therapy, even when the exercise bout requires a combination of strength and endurance.

For example, cold is known to reduce nerve conduction velocity, the conduction of signals along nerves. This is a physiological mechanism that reduces pain. This may account for the subsequent reductions in symptoms of muscle soreness, and increased perceptions of wellbeing.

Cold water immersion is also known to help restore heart rate variability, the variation in the millisecond time periods between successive heart beats. This is another marker associated with recovery and well-being.

So, cold water immersion following strength exercise should be undertaken with caution or avoided. Its use following one-off circumstances like big sports events or endurance exercise is recommended, and may even provide additional benefits for subsequent endurance exercise performance.

I have adapted this answer from my original article in The Conversation


Do post-exercise ice baths improve performance?

Hakan Westerblad has answered Unlikely

An expert from Karolinska Institutet in Exercise Physiology, Musculoskeletal Science

Scientific studies show varying outcomes regarding the effect of post-exercise ice baths on the subsequent performance, with results ranging from minor positive effects, via no effects, to negative effects. On the positive side, there seems to be a trend for ice baths to limit muscle soreness after exercise. On the negative side, results indicate that ice baths can limit resistance training-induced strength gains. Clearly, cooling of muscles will slow the recovery of exercise-induced energy metabolic changes (e.g. resynthesis of muscle glycogen), since enzymatic reactions always become slower when the temperature is decreased. Finally, it should be noted that subtle effects can have a large impact in an elite sports context (e.g. less than 0.1 s difference in a 100 m sprint) and such minor changes are difficult, or even impossible, to detect in scientific studies. 


Do post-exercise ice baths improve performance?

Christopher Mawhinney has answered Uncertain

An expert from Mahidol University in Exercise Physiology, Sports Science

The current evidence whether post exercise ice baths or cold-water immersion can improve exercise performance remains equivocal. However, context should be applied when deciding whether to apply this method as a post-exercise recovery strategy. The effects upon subsequent performance can depend upon the time to the next exercise bout, with immediately performing exercise after an ice bath (e.g within 1 hour) even resulting in negative performance outcomes due muscle cooling slowing nerve conduction velocity. The interpretation of performance outcomes is particularly difficult due to the varied ice bath/immersion duration, temperature, depths and types of exercise (recovery from eccentrically or metabolically dominant exercise) that has been employed in past research. Indeed, it is suggested that protocols should be individualized based upon the characteristics of the person (I.e., body composition). 

The primary benefit of applying ice baths appear to be related to reducing muscle soreness or perception of effort, with muscle cooling potentially reducing the swelling and oedema that may present in exercised muscles after strenuous exercise. A reduction in the inflammatory response is also often cited, however to date, this has only been observed in animal models (probably due to the induction of muscle damage via blunt trauma and not via exercise induced muscle damage). A reduction in muscle soreness will potentially help to optimize subsequent performance, with this psychophysical aspect not be overlooked.

More recently, work has been conducted to examine the adaptive response to ice baths / cold water immersion. Interestingly, there is evidence which suggests that cooling the exercise muscle increases the cellular signal which turns on mitochondrial biogenesis, however to date, several studies have shown that It does not result in an enhanced aerobic capacity. Alternatively, regular application of ice baths/ immersions have been shown to result in negative strength and hypertrophy (muscle size) adaptations. These findings suggest that ice baths/ cold water immersions should be periodized to suit. For example, their use may be selected during tournaments when quick recovery from muscle damage is required, pre season when looking for aerobic adaptations, but not during strength/ hypertrophy phases.


Do post-exercise ice baths improve performance?

Johanna Lanner has answered Unlikely

An expert from Karolinska Institutet in Exercise Physiology

There is no direct yes, or no answer and importantly it depends on the context and what type of performance that is considered. Nevertheless, when trying to summaries recent studies it appears as, if performance would be considered improved by reducing the symptoms of exercise-induced delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS, i.e., pain and stiffness experienced in muscles several hours to days (usually 24-72 hours) after unaccustomed or strenuous exercise), then there are reports supporting that post-exercise ice baths have an acute alleviating effect. The physiological explanation is likely linked to that cooling i) reduces nerve impulse transmission and thus reduces the level of pain perception and ii) induces constriction of blood vessels in peripheral tissue (e.g., muscle) which results in reduced fluid diffusion that may assist in reducing exercise-induced acute inflammation and hence reduce pain, swelling and the loss of force associated with inflammation.  

On the other hand, if performance is measured as one-repetition maximum, maximum isometric strength, or strength endurance performance then post-exercise ice baths appear to induce deleterious effects (Malta et al 2021; Petersen Fyfe 2021). Moreover, if performance is measure as acute recovery of exercise performance following fatigue-induced endurance exercise then cooling also has a negative impact (Cheng et al 2017). Cooling results in reduced skeletal muscle blood flow and nutrient delivery to the muscle, which may contribute to the impaired strength and anabolic response caused by cooling during recovery from resistance exercise. Furthermore, glycogen is a primary energy source for muscle contraction, and depletion of glycogen in muscle is linked to prolonged force depression after fatiguing exercise. Cooling is shown to reduce glycogen resynthesis rates and hence lowering muscle temperature results in impaired recovery from exhaustive endurance exercise (Cheng et al 2017).

Thus, unless improve performance is associated with an acute (i.e short-term) alleviation of DOMS, it is unlikely that post-exercise ice baths have beneficial effects. Instead, they may even induce detrimental effects on performance associated with muscle function.

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