Ice baths: A miracle recovery method?

Recent research has called into question the effectiveness of ice baths, writes Martin Duff

Posted on January 18, 2013 by
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Dr Jo Corbett of Portsmouth University is one of the authors of a study that looked into the benefits of cold water immersion when compared to steady-state recovery running.

The conclusion was that ice baths or cold water immersion are no more beneficial than gentle recovery runs at aiding recovery from high-intensity training.

According to the Portsmouth University team, researchers in different parts of the world have come to different conclusions concerning the use of immersion techniques. Some say it offers advantages while others have differed. Corbett also questions the scientific basis of the other studies.

It is understandable that many high-mileage athletes, such as Paula Radcliffe and Mo Farah, have resorted to ice baths as an alternative to even more time on their feet. But Corbett’s studies throw doubt on its effectiveness.

He says: “Cold water immersion is a popular recovery method that has been shown to alleviate some of the symptoms of muscle soreness and fatigue in some studies, although the evidence is equivocal. In many of the studies where a benefit has been shown, the experimental model used has borne little resemblance to the activities of athletes and the comparison group has usually consisted of seated rest, rather than the light warm-down exercise that is employed by most athletes.”

He adds: “The mechanisms by which brief cold water immersion could facilitate recovery are not clear, although they could be due to the cooling effects, the hydrostatic pressure effects, or a combination of these. Understanding this is vital for providing appropriate guidelines for cold water immersion.”

The Portsmouth team looked at a group of 40 athletes and Corbett explained: “We conducted a study comparing the effectiveness of a 12-minute standing cold water (12°C) immersion to the umbilicus, a 12-minute standing thermo- neutral water immersion (35°C), a two-minute seated cold water (12°C) immersion, and 12-minute light exercise on recovery.”

This followed 90 minutes of intermittent shuttle running, which induced an increase in muscle soreness both immediately and after one, two or three days post- intervention.

Crucially, no differences between the athletes undergoing different post-exercise treatment or interaction effects were evident for any of these parameters.

“Given the lack of clear evidence supporting the effectiveness of cold water immersion for facilitating recovery and the potentially dangerous physiological effects reported for cold water immersion, we feel athletes should exercise caution before employing this intervention,” warned Corbett.

“Further consideration should be given to the suggestion that the possibility to reduce inflammation through cold water immersion might attenuate the training response but evidence for this claim is equivocal.”

One Response to “Ice baths: A miracle recovery method?”

  1. Rickie says:

    Glad I found this article as I read about how footballers use this technique for recovery, but with little medical support, I'll concentrate on my nutrition first and foremost, this is what my physiotherapist has suggested so I'll go with that. I'm not an elite athlete so probably need to avoid the hype of what I read!

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