If you were ever a high school or collegiate athlete, chances are your coach or trainer encouraged you to take ice baths. In fact, universities are notorious for having huge wings of their training facilities dedicated to these “cold water immersion” therapies.
You might remember the feeling yourself. You’ve just finished a hard weight training session and jump into the ice bath. All of a sudden, your lungs feel like they are the size of grapes. Ah, memories… The next day, the inflammation is gone (at least mostly) and you notice that you aren’t as sore as you would have been, had you not taken the icy plunge!
What if I was to tell you, that recent research suggests that those years of ice baths recommended to you by your coaches and trainers may have been hindering your training progress?
Let’s talk about that.
One study carried out by Llion Roberts et al in 2015 produced some pretty astonishing results.
In the first part of this study, researchers set out to see how regular cold water immersion effected changes in the muscle mass and strength of participants following a 12‐week lower-body strength training program.
The sample was split into two groups. The first group performed ten minutes of active recovery on a stationary bike after their workout, whilst the other group took a ten-minute ice bath. After the 12 weeks, they checked to see which group saw the greatest increase in muscle mass and strength.
The second part of this study examined the effects of cold-water immersion on hypertrophy signalling pathways and satellite cell activity in skeletal muscle during recovery from an acute bout of strength exercise.
They divided their sample based on post exercise recovery, again using stationary bikes and ice baths. The goal of this section of the study was to see the immediate effects from a single strength training session on mechanisms in the muscle that help build and repair.
So… that’s neat, right? Anyway, I assume you want to know what they found?
Great! Well, in part one of this research, Roberts found that the subjects who were exposed to ice baths had significantly lower increases in muscle mass and strength compared to those who performed active recovery. In part two, they found that ice baths delayed and even reduced the subject’s strength building and muscle repair response.
This would suggest that those years of hopping in the ice baths after a hardcore workout with your teammates may have reduced your ability to heal and build muscle. Fascinating, right?
But don't elite athletes use them?
If you caught any coverage of the Olympic Games this month, you probably saw a number of athletes taking ice bath in between events. So why are athletes still braving the cold in light of Robert’s findings?
Other research has suggested that ice baths greatly reduce inflammation from strenuous training or competition [1,3]. It would stand to reason that athletes who compete in multiple events or over multiple days would need ice baths to reduce their soreness and maintain their performance levels.
Take Great Britain’s Olympic athlete Jessica Ennis‐Hill for example. Jessica is a regular user of cold-water immersion for recovery. She recently competed in the heptathlon (consisting of seven events) over two days at the Olympics. If a technique like cold-water immersion assists in her recovery between events and allows her to maintain a high level of performance, it would obviously be in her best interest to use it.
Another example is American swimmer and Olympic legend, Michael Phelps. He recently competed in 10 events over seven days, collect five gold’s along the way. He was regularly seen sitting in ice baths preparing for events. This would suggest that the use of these ice baths to remove inflammation benefited his performance in the pool.
So should I take the plunge or not?
Now, the idea isn’t that ice baths shouldn’t be used. It’s that ice baths need to be used appropriately.
Say you’re an athlete in your off‐season. This should be the time when you are trying to get bigger, faster, or stronger. With research showing that ice baths interfere with building strength and muscle mass, it would be a good idea to seek out other methods of recovery, like more sleep, stretching, getting the right nutrition or foam rolling.
However, using this method during your competition season may be beneficial. At this point in your season, you should simply be trying to perform you best! Logically, if you have multiple events, even over a few days, it might be worth taking that icy plunge to maintain your performance levels.
How quickly you recover post-workout can also be affected by your DNA. At FitnessGenes, we analyze genes that influence your sleep cycle (CLOCK) and inflammation levels (ACTN3 and IL6), to provide personalized recommendations on how you can ensure optimal recovery.
Yet to unlock your unique fitness DNA? Receive full FitnessGenes DNA Analysis and a genetically tailored workout and nutrition plan by purchasing a goal specific Genetic Workout System from our online shop.
Main image: University of Alabama’s whirlpool/ice/heat bath section in their athletic facility (http://media.al.com/alphotos/photo/2016/01/31/19655060-standard.jpg)
 Roberts, L., Raastad, T., Markworth, J., Figueiredo, V., Egner, I., Shield, A., Cameron‐Smith, D., Coombes, J., & Peake, J. (2015). Post‐exercise cold water immersion attenuates acute anabolic signalling and long‐term adaptations in muscle to strength training. J Physiol The Journal of Physiology, 593(18), 4285‐4301.
 Machado, A., Ferreira, P., Micheletti, J., Almeida, A., Lemes, Í., Vanderlei, F., Junior, J., & Pastre, C. M. (2015). Can Water Temperature and Immersion Time Influence the Effect of Cold Water Immersion on Muscle Soreness? A Systematic Review and Meta‐Analysis. Sports Med Sports Medicine, 46(4), 503‐514.
 Vaile, J., O'hagan, C., Stefanovic, B., Walker, M., Gill, N., & Askew, C. (2010). Effect of cold water immersion on repeated cycling performance and limb blood flow. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 45(10), 825‐829.