The Cold, Hard Truth About Ice Baths

By DaphneMatalene | July 18, 2019

 

It’s hot out there, and there’s nothing quite like a refreshing dip in the pool, the ocean, or even an alpine stream for lowering your core temperature. But what about getting really cool by taking an ice bath or spending a few minutes in a cryotherapy chamber? Some athletes are devoted to ice baths, touting enhanced muscle recovery and decreased soreness after hard efforts. Scientists, on the other hand, are a little more skeptical.

Any athlete who’s been injured (which is pretty much all of us) knows that the first steps toward recovery are RICE: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Physics tells us that heat causes expansion and cold causes contraction, so it stands to reason that an ice pack on a minor injury like a rolled ankle will not only reduce swelling, but also provide temporary pain relief. But what if you’re not injured, and just sore and tired from a long workout or a tough race? Does cold really speed muscle recovery?

Diving Into Ice Baths

Alix Lewis, a rugby player and CrossFit enthusiast, says, “I submit myself to death by a thousand icy knives on a fairly regular basis, and for me, it really does help my physical recovery. I notice a difference in the days following an ice bath.”

Distance runner Adrienne Viscardi often picks up a bag of ice for the bath on her way home from a long run. “I always keep my polar fleece on my top half and read a running book or magazine for motivation,” she says.

Despite many athletes' anecdotal evidence in support of the masochistic soak, the scientific jury is still out. One reason that scientists have struggled to find a definitive answer is that it’s difficult to design a controlled experiment. People tend to know immediately when they’re dunked in an ice bath!

In his 2018 book, Endure, author Alex Hutchinson, a former national-team long-distance runner and Cambridge-trained physicist, cites a recent study from Victoria University in Australia, that tried to settle the issue. Participants did a hard cycling workout, and then spent 15 minutes soaking in cold water, lukewarm water, or lukewarm water with a few drops of “recovery oil”—which was in fact plain old unscented soap. For the next two days, researchers tested each group’s leg strength (a far more accurate marker of actual recovery than perceived soreness). The phony recovery oil was just as effective as the ice bath, but that doesn’t mean that the ice bath didn’t help.

Hutchinson’s conclusion: “If you like ice baths and feel that they help you, you should stick with them. If you don’t like them or haven’t experienced them, there’s no compelling reason you should start.”

Some athletes are more than happy to take that advice. Marathoner Chris Willis, for example, eschews the icy dunk. “There’s solid evidence that an ice bath reduces soreness, but that’s not the same thing as aiding muscle recovery,” he says. “Obviously, icing an acute injury is one thing, but submerging my entire lower body in cold water? Mark me down for ‘nope.’”

NYRR coach Melanie Kann points out that no two athletes are alike. “Some runners swear by them, and there’s certainly no harm in trying an ice bath," she says, "but there are plenty of other equally effective ways to recover, like nutrition, hydration, rest, and a solid mobility routine that includes foam rolling, stretching, and massage." She adds, “Everyone’s body is unique, so I encourage all my runners to find the technique that works best for them, not their training buddy.”

The cold, hard truth? If you’re chill with ice baths, enjoy one after your next hard workout. But if you’d rather walk on hot coals, it’s perfectly fine to skip the polar plunge. Bypassing the Arctic Enema on a Tough Mudder course, however? Not cool.

Daphne Matalene is an NYC-based marathoner and coach who’s tried ice baths and even spent three minutes shivering in a cryotherapy chamber in the name of service journalism. She prefers to slip out of her sweaty clothes and into a dry martini after a long run.