Ice baths for recovery

Ice baths for recovery

Should you take the plunge?

Most professional athletes will tell you that ‘’sweating the small stuff’’ is paramount to their success. Commitment to the finer details such as nutrition, functional training, getting enough sleep and stress levels requires a state of discipline that is necessary to get ahead. Consistency is key and athletes are well practiced in balancing their strengths and weaknesses amongst these areas, however, there is one area of concern that seems to be largely overlooked in the average athlete’s hierarchy of disciplines and that is recovery.

Recently (pre-covid19) I sat in the Saunders beach tidal pool waters in Sea Point with someone who had fully embraced the ice bath ‘Wim-Hoff Method’ craze to overcome a personal and serious health issue. At sub 14 degrees Celsius, he explained that he had been keeping up this routine every day for months, sometimes spending more than 20 minutes in the water at a time.

After about 15 minutes, I got out feeling completely rejuvenated and exhilarated, fully aware of my body’s enhanced state as it worked to warm me up from the inside out. I went back to work feeling fantastic and slept like a baby that night! This was not the first time I had experimented with an ice bath and would not be the last as I continued to visit that pool 3 times a week until lockdown and I will be back there again on the 1st of May when we are allowed to exercise outdoors again.

Recently, ‘cryotherapy’ has been gaining a lot of attention and many popular athletes are endorsing it as a post workout recovery such as Meb Keflezighi who was said to take ice baths after every training session (along with massages, naps etc).

Theoretically, ice baths are said to reduce inflammation, speed up recovery and challenge your body to extreme temperatures in order to condition yourself so that you adapt better in future, from both a mental and physical standpoint.

It is well known that icing an acute injury (correctly) is beneficial to swelling, inflammation and recovery so it makes sense that this could apply to post training recovery- however, as with most new training trends, there are differing opinions and the verdict is not out yet on whether or not an ice bath will be beneficial for YOU as an individual.

When you expose your body to extreme cold, your blood vessels supplying your skin and superficial muscles constrict in an attempt to slow down the loss of body heat. When you get out of the cold, the blood vessels dilate again. This process causes a flushing effect, removing metabolic waste and helping blood and especially lymph to flow. More ‘flow’ means more oxygen and nutrients and less waste… Sounds great, right?

Here’s a metanalysis from 2018 to back that up, showing that cryotherapy and massage were the most effective methods of reducing markers of muscle damage, soreness, fatigue and inflammation.

Aaaaand here’s another study from 2012 that disagrees, stating that ice baths weren't more effective than ‘active recovery’ in reducing muscle soreness. This doesn’t mean that they don’t help, it just means that low intensity exercise helps just as much. Perhaps we should combine them?

One benefit of ice baths that does seem to be conclusive is the positive effect they have on your parasympathetic nervous system and mental state, making you feel more relaxed and improving your quality of sleep. Say no more! This is enough for me and I can personally testify with regards to my own subjective experience that ice baths make you feel great. And if you feel great, you perform better, right?

If you can’t find yourself an ice bath, don’t sweat, there are other ways to speed up recovery after a workout. Try massage, low intensity exercise, foam rolling or light stretching, but most importantly- eat well and get enough sleep!


''I've found some cold water, now how long do I need to freeze for?''

A metanalysis from 2016 found that athletes gained the most from ice baths by submerging their whole body at 10-15 degrees Celcius for 10-15 minutes, immediately after training. Personally, I feel this depends on the temperature and your own individual capabilities to withstand the cold. Some people are more insulated than others.

As Zlaant suggests with any new challenge, it is always best to start small, find your tolerance and progress… I started with cold showers!

Remember, you won’t see the full potential of the results that can be achieved without consistency and discipline. One cold shower is not going to do it!

Try work your ice baths in to your routine over a period of 21 days before deciding whether or not they make a difference on your overall recovery, prevention and performance.