Ice baths no good for muscle recovery

13 February 2017
Shower boy

New evidence suggests ice baths do nothing to help muscle recovery after exercise.

Ice baths have long been used by elite athletes and sports people after competition and training. The assumption was that soaking in cold water promotes muscle recovery by reducing temperature, blood flow and inflammation in tissues of the muscles.

But a new study by an international team that includes Liggins Institute scientists shows that immersion in cold water does not reduce inflammation.

“Ice baths have become almost standard practice for a lot of athletes, yet until now there have been no studies on humans to test their effectiveness,” says Professor David Cameron-Smith from the Liggins Institute at the University of Auckland.

“Our study found ice baths are no more beneficial than a simple low intensity warm-down at reducing inflammation and muscle damage after intense exercise.”

Not only do ice baths not combat inflammation, an earlier study by the same international research team showed they actually reduce the benefits of training hard, with smaller gains in muscle mass and strength following weight training.

Liggins Institute Professor David Cameron-Smith
Liggins Institute Professor David Cameron-Smith

In the latest study, published in the Journal of Physiology, researchers got nine physically active men to do leg resistance training exercises for 45 minutes on two separate days at least one week apart.

On one of the days, the men cycled at a low intensity (active recovery, or a warm-down) for 10 minutes after exercising, and on the other, they immersed their lower body in 10C water for 10 minutes post-workout.

Muscle biopsies were collected from the exercised leg before training and then at two, 24 and 48-hour intervals afterwards.

Analysis showed the same pattern of inflammatory responses in muscles following ice baths and active recovery.

Professor Cameron-Smith says there is some evidence that ice baths may be helpful in endurance training, and may be beneficial for tendon and ligament injuries.

“If you have a quick turnaround between games or events, ice baths may be useful to help you relax and provide short-term relief to muscle pain, but they’re not going to reduce inflammation and will be detrimental to building muscle in the long run,” he says.

“Apart from times when you need a quick wind-down, our advice would be drop them.”

 

Associated Article:

Journal of Physiology – The effects of cold water immersion active recovery on inflammation and cell stress responses in human skeletal muscle after resistance exercise

 

Notes:

  • The study was a collaboration between researchers from the Liggins Institute at the University of Auckland, Queensland University of Technology, Queensland Academy of Sport, the University of Queensland, the University of Oslo, the Norwegian School of Sport Scientists and Waseda University.
  • Main points: nine physically active men performed 45 minutes of leg resistance exercises in two single-leg workouts at least one week apart. After one session on one leg, they immersed their lower body in a 10C bath for 10 minutes. After the other session on the other leg, they did a warm-down for 10 minutes. Analysis of muscle biopsies revealed ice baths are no better than a low intensity warm-down at reducing inflammation or cellular stress after resistance training.

 

Contact

Nicola Shepheard Media Relations Adviser Emailn.shepheard@auckland.ac.nz