Trainers and athletes alike have sworn by ice baths recoveries for years. While research on the topic is limited, some studies have indicated that cold water immersion (CWI) could possibly help speed muscle recovery and ease muscle soreness, especially after a strenuous workout. Many athletes also claim CWI has other benefits like flushing out lactic acid and reducing tissue breakdown. Whatever the true scientific effects, ice baths continue to be the most popular method of recovery after an especially rough workout.
But this technique may be in hot water after the findings of recent research.
A new study from the University of Queensland, published in The Journal of Physiology, found that immersing your body in cold water after strength training can actually hinder muscle adaptation, rather than speed up the recovery process.
To uncover these shiver-worthy findings, lead researchers Dr. Llion Roberts and Dr. Jonathan Peake studied 21 physically active men. In the first part of the study, participants were asked to complete strength training two days a week for 12 weeks. Half the group was treated with a 10-minute, 10 degrees Celsius ice bath. The rest of the group skipped the chilly recovery and instead warmed down on an exercise bike.
After the 12 weeks were complete, the group who warmed down on the bikes ended up showing increased muscle strength and mass compared to the ice-bathers.
In a secondary study, researchers took muscle biopsies of men after they’d performed the same post-workout routine — either ice bath or warm down. Similarly to the first study, the results favored the warm-down group. The researchers found that the activity of satellite cells, like muscle stem cells, and other physiological necessities to building muscle were reduced up to two days after exercise with the ice bath group.
All of these findings counter previous beliefs about the best form of recovery for athletes. Such as a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise that found ice baths were useful in reducing swelling in muscle tissue. However, even in this study, and in many others of its kind, scientists have acknowledged that there could be some long-term drawbacks to this recovery method.
Roberts believes the harm of ice baths, including a lack of long-term muscle gains, could be the result of reduced blood flow caused by cold water. But it’s still somewhat unclear why these results poured cold water on the ice bath recovery technique.
Other reasons could potentially be affecting the research — considering it’s impossible to control every muscle-building factor in a study. For example, the strength loss could be a result of a subject’s poor nutrition or lack of sleep.
While Peake does advise people to steer clear of ice baths, especially after strength training, more research is necessary before making conclusive claims. This means most athletes probably won’t be giving up their chilly post-workout routine any time soon.
However, if these latest results make you a bit wary of bathing in ice, there’s plenty of other ways to ease your muscles post workout. For a few alternative options, Shape recommends using compression garments or engaging in a lot of active post-workout stretching for similar results.