There are many different ways people like to recover after a workout or competition. During the summer Olympics, rows upon rows of 100 gallon tubs could be seen, filled with gallons of ice water waiting for the elite to take the plunge after their events. More recently, ice baths have been a popular way to treat sore muscles following a vigorous exercise regimen. Delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, usually occurs 24-48 hours after a workout, and ice baths are thought to be an effective method of warding off unwanted soreness as a post work out recovery method.
The theory behind ice baths
Why use ice when heat feels better right away? During intense exercise, minor micro-trauma occurs to the muscle fibers that are being worked. This damage both stimulates cell activity, which helps to repair and strengthen muscle. Unfortunately, it also is linked to delayed onset muscle soreness. Cold water immersion constricts blood vessels and pumps lactic acid out of the affected tissues, thus decreasing metabolic activity and reducing swelling and tissue breakdown.
The rewarming of the muscles upon leaving the ice bath helps to improve circulation, which in turn jump starts the healing process. Temperature of the ice bath should be approximately 55 degrees Fahrenheit for anywhere from 5-10 minutes to achieve the desired effect. There is no benefit to staying in the water for longer than the recommended 10 minutes, and prolonged exposure to low temperatures could cause adverse effects. Frost bite and hypothermia could all occur from remaining in cold water for too long, so remember in this case, go big or go home is not recommended!
So, does it work?
Most studies offer inconclusive findings, although across the board researchers agree that it is better than doing nothing! Studies have shown that utilizing ice or cold water immersion therapy following activity does reduce inflammation, but it also hindered muscle fiber growth and delays muscle regeneration. This is a contraindication of those who are trying to increase muscle size and/or strength. Some studies even reported increased pain the day after ice water immersion therapy with no difference in swelling or tenderness. So what is the bottom line? Ice baths do offer some limited benefits to muscle recovery. Combining cold water immersion therapy with active recovery or contrast baths cold lead to better results than just the cold tub alone.
By Riki Duncan