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rest & recovery

Ice Baths - Friend or Foe?

Do ice baths actually aid recovery?
Sam Waburton standing and chatting about rugby recovery
rest & recovery

Regarding recovery, there are many modalities that we can use as athletes to aid recovery. We will always stress that good nutrition, sleep and hydration are certainly the 3 most important methods you should utilise to enable you to recover as well as possible. However, once these three are in place and you have the time to add more modalities, ice baths are a popular choice.

But do they actually work? Many research articles have shown positive and negative effects. To try and put this argument to bed, a recent meta-analysis was conducted combining 52 studies to investigate the effect of cold-water immersion on recovery and athletic performance (Moore et al 2022).

After cold water immersion there was a perceived reduction in Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) and improvements in perceived recovery after eccentric training and high intensity exercise. Note, Ice baths do have a ‘pain inhibition’ effect so they will acutely reduce soreness too and I have certainly experienced this myself after tough sessions and international matches.

Interestingly, this study found that cold water immersion is more likely to positively influence dynamic power movements rather than static strength following both eccentric and high intensity exercise.

The optimal duration and temperature were said to be 10 degrees and for a duration of 10-12 mins max. In my experience, I would have taken an ice bath for around 5 minutes, by which point your body almost climatizes, so an extra 5 minutes doesn’t sound as bad as it seems.

Another study looked at the effectiveness of cold-water immersion after endurance training and after resistance training. This has particular interest for contact sports player, and athletes as we are often training ‘concurrently’. This means training in the weight room and for aerobic & anaerobic fitness together.

This study found that cold water immersion does not impair aerobic training adaptations. The study further states that “post-exercise cold bath up regulates mitochondrial related signalling and longer term changes in protein content and result in vascular adaptations”  

“Despite these positive effects at cellular level, these changes do not seem to always translate to improved endurance performance”. (Ihsan et al. Frontiers 2021).

When we compare the effects of cold-water immersion after resistance training, it’s said to dampen the strength adaptations and should be discouraged. However, no impairments in strength gains were reported in athletes who used cold baths during intensified training periods.

What these studies have demonstrated and concluded was that ice baths can be utilised during competition or intensified training and avoided following training for strength and muscle hypertrophy.

This is what happened in my own experience playing professional sports. You become quite intuitive with your body the longer you’ve been training and experimenting with these methods, and I certainly found benefit after matches, and after tough interval running sessions or intense rugby sessions. However, after weight training, to avoid ice baths was the norm as a rugby player, and this has been backed up by the studies we have discussed.

During a pre-season for example, it was often recommended to avoid ice baths to force the body to recover naturally. Then, in-season ice baths were advised after games and tough training days to aid the bodies recover on top of the tolerance you have developed naturally during pre-season.

So there you have it. It does seem there is certainly a place and a strong argument for Ice baths to be utilised during your training to aid recovery when utilised and timed accordingly.


rest & recovery
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