Ice Baths: The Cold Truth

During a warmer (thanks humidity and dew point) run the other day I started thinking about prepping an ice bath at home for the summer training ahead. With some big miles planned for the summer, recovery will be key so the ice bath idea sounds perfect. Then I got thinking that I really didn’t know how the ice bath actually helps with recovery, or if it even did and was instead just something people did because they’d seen others do it too. So I went digging and here’s what I found.

To understand more clearly how inflammation can be good and why we may not want to treat it with an ice bath, let’s look at why inflammation may occur. Inflammation occurs when we place stress on our bodies, usually due to some form of workout that can be either physical or physiological. Stress plus rest = growth, so inflammation is part of the process for fitness adaptations to occur. During a workout, our muscles are stressed and we get microtears in those muscles. The bodies response is to sound the alarm and attempt to repair these tears as quickly and efficiently as possible and make us stronger. The same happens during a long run when we place our bodies under oxidative stress. Our bodies respond by ensuring we have more mitochondria available for our next run so that we are better prepared. Both of these examples would result in inflammation in one way or another, both with the intention of making us stronger and faster.
 
So why may an ice bath be a bad idea? An ice bath reduces inflammation and can therefore inhibit positive fitness and muscular adaptations. Ice baths blunt pathways that lead to these adaptations that make you stronger and faster. We want that inflammation and repairing process to take time, so that the process is completed in it’s entirety without interruptions.

An Ice bath could be considered over-recovering. The damage, the inflammation, the fatigue are the signals that tell our bodies to get stronger. Ice Baths mute that signal too soon and that could mean part of your hard earned workout was wasted. So, if you’re looking to improve your performance by becoming stronger or faster, then it’s best to ditch that ice bath and let your body run it’s natural cause or look to an active recovery session such as cycling, aqua running, or swimming etc.).

So should I ditch ice baths totally? Don’t go dropping those ice cubes into your gin and tonic just yet. If attempting to trigger fitness adaptations isn’t the primary goal then an ice bath does serve a positive purpose. Why would I not be trying to trigger fitness adaptations, I always run to get faster? Well, after a goal race. Recovery rather than triggering a fitness adaptation is now the primary purpose, and the research tells us that an ice bath would be a useful during this time as we are not focused on getting stronger or faster at that moment in our training
 
Now, there are other purposes that ice baths may be used, such as helping to strengthen your immune system, increase alertness, alter your mood, and lose weight, however we’ll tackle those issues another time.
 
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The idea behind an ice bath is to reduce inflammation, aid recovery, and get you back to your ‘normal state’ as quickly as possible. Generally, the research supports this as inflammation appears to decrease following an ice bath. Great! Well until I discovered that not all inflammation is bad and therefore the ice bath may not be supporting recovery and performance.

If you want to dig a little deeper into the research that this article was based off I recommend reading the following:

Anti-inflammatory interventions and skeletal muscle injury: benefit or detriment? Urso (2013) –
 
Strength Training Adaptations after Cold-Water Immersion. Fröhlich, Faude, Klein, Pieter, Emrich, Meyer (2014) – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24552795/
 
The Influence of Post-Exercise Cold-Water Immersion on Adaptive Responses to Exercise: A Review
of the Literature. Broatch, Petersen,  Bishop (2018) – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29627884/

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