Ice Bath Benefits for Athletes
This content was updated for accuracy and relevance on 04/18/23
Chances are you have either heard of, seen, or experienced for yourself the ice bath, also known as cold therapy or cold water immersion. And if you haven’t had the opportunity, picture a giant tub filled with cold water and maybe even ice cubes, depending on the ambient temperature, where individuals submerge themselves, potentially their entire body, but more typically only their feet, lower body, or up to their chest. While athletes mainly use this recovery technique, ice baths have had an increase in their following recently with the rise of different cryotherapy treatments, or cold immersion, and recovery services. Ice bath benefits are plenty and go beyond athletic needs.
Why Should You Take an Ice Bath?
As with any popularized recovery tactic or pain management tool, ice baths have had some controversy surrounding them regarding the optimal health benefits and science behind how it helps improve muscle recovery, decrease pain, and minimize muscle damage and soreness. Ice baths, ice cold water immersion, or even just taking a cold shower may just make you feel good or aid in short-term performance, even if it is just from the placebo effect. There are some ideas about how ice baths can help prevent muscle soreness and cool your body down, but studies have not yet shown if regular ice baths, or ice baths following rigorous activity, can lead to increased long-term recovery, enhanced strength gains, or muscle repair and growth.
1. Prevent Muscle Soreness
Ice baths may prevent muscle soreness through a few different methods. For starters, submerging oneself into a cold bath or exposing oneself to cold temperatures following a heavy workout brings cooling relief to sore, burning muscles. In this way, ice baths simply decrease or mitigate the effect of heat and humidity that is present following a workout. There is also the obvious numbing effect of ice. The cold of the ice bath prevents you from experiencing pain from sore muscles for a brief period of time. This may lead to a lower RPE (rating of perceived exertion), which may mean you may be able to perform more than you normally would the following day or for your next workout.
Additionally, with your blood vessels exposed to such a cold temperature, vasoconstriction, a narrowing of the blood vessels, occurs. This leads to lower blood flow to the areas submerged, leading to less post-workout swelling and any potential inflammation, which may lead to short-term decreased muscle soreness. Furthermore, as your body warms up after an ice bath, a rush of healthy nutrients is brought to your muscles through your bloodstream, and quicker flushing of waste build-up in your muscles may occur, which may prevent DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).
2. Cool Your Body Down
Besides preventing in aiding in , include cooling down your . As you work out and exert energy, you are raising your body temperature. As you do this, your body will begin to sweat as an inherent response to try to cool you down. Working out, along with this sweating response, causes you to feel hotter and more humid as a result. Ice baths can decrease the effect of heat and humidity, principally working to cool your body temperature in a very physical way.
Some studies point to the health benefits of cold exposure, leading to potential improvements in parasympathetic response and activity, decreased stress, or improved stress response. Even just 10 seconds of ice cold water exposure can make you feel refreshed or more alert, which may alter the way in which you perceive and handle stress at an emotional and physical level. This rapid cooling effect may reach beyond just the musculoskeletal system, serving as a benefit to your body as a whole.
How Long Should You Stay in an Ice Bath?
Ice bathing does not come without some parameters, as the nature of exposing your body to extreme water temperature may be unsafe for certain individuals or in certain situations. The vasoconstriction that occurs in the blood vessels may be dangerous for people with cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure, as it may increase your risk for cardiac arrest or stroke. People with a diagnosis of type 1 or type 2 diabetes may also need to be more careful with ice baths as this disease makes it harder for individuals to regulate their core temperature. Lastly, hypothermia can be a concern if you are submerged in an ice bath for too long.
That being said, it is recommended that you keep the water temperature of the ice bath between 50°F and 59°F (10°C and 15°C), and limit your time to 10-15 minutes.
How can physical therapy help
Ice baths have long been thought of as an excellent tool to speed the recovery of muscles and the entire body following an intense workout. However, research has not backed up these claims. This does not necessarily mean that ice baths and are worthless. There are some very real and useful short-term effects of ice bathing that can occur.
If you’re looking for the next step to enhance and speed recovery, speaking with your physical therapist is a great option. They will not only be able to explain how and when ice baths would be a useful addition to your recovery plan, but they will also be able to educate you on other recovery tactics that may provide more lasting relief that is tailored to you, your personal limitations or pains, and your goals for fitness, health, and wellness. These may include utilizing other recovery tactics such as foam rolling, static or dynamic stretching, providing information on the basics of nutrition and hydration, and education on how to alter, modify, or tailor your current workout plans to ensure adequate strength, endurance training, or promote greater muscle performance. You may also benefit from a Sports Injury Screening, if you are in pain, or one of our many other programs, including our Return to Sports Program.
Our physical therapists can help you learn more about how to maximize your recovery and reach your goals. Find a clinic near you and get in touch with us today!
Article By: Anne Diaz-Arrastia, PT, DPT, OCS
Anne Diaz-Arrastia, PT, DPT, OCS began her physical therapy career 5 years ago. Anne loves working with the active sports population and believes in the importance of providing individualized care that is specific to the activity and sport her patients love. She currently specializes in sports, orthopedics, vestibular, and concussion management. Anne enjoys working with patients of all activity levels and ages to help them reach their goals of living life just the way they envision. She currently treats patients at The Training Room of Haddonfield in Haddonfield, NJ.
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