Ice Baths: Are They Worth The Suffering?

Jun 06, 2023

Ice baths are a popular recovery modality among athletes both amateur and pro. Not to mention every fucking influencer going looking to produce more shirtless content. It seems to be seeping through to the mainstream with even the most novice of lifters buying an over-priced paddling pool for garden recovery sessions... But what is the science behind Ice baths? Here are some key points from the research:

Firstly, what do you mean by Ice Bath?

In this instance, an ice bath involves immersing the body in cold water, typically between 10-15°C, for a short period of time, usually 5-15 minutes. 

How does it work?

The theory behind ice baths is that the cold water causes blood vessels to constrict, which reduces inflammation and swelling in the muscles. When the body is removed from the cold water, the blood vessels dilate, which increases blood flow and helps to flush out metabolic waste products.

Influencers... FFS...

What does the research say?

There is limited evidence in the sport science literature identifying the benefit of modalities in promoting recovery between sporting competition games. However, some studies have suggested that ice baths and contrast baths (alternating between hot and cold water) may be more advantageous to athlete's recovery from team sport than passive rest between successive games (of rugby union, which was the sport studied.)  

Should you bother then?:

Psychology may play a part in reported benefits of ice baths. Here are some points to consider:

Placebo effect:

The placebo effect is a well-known phenomenon in which a person experiences a positive effect from a treatment that has no active ingredients. It is possible that athletes who believe in the benefits of ice baths may experience a placebo effect, leading them to report positive outcomes even if the ice bath itself has no physiological effect.

Perceived benefits:

Athletes may perceive benefits from ice baths due to the psychological effect of feeling like they are doing something to aid in their recovery. This feeling of control and agency can be empowering and lead to positive outcomes.

In conclusion, psychology may play a part in reported benefits of ice baths. The placebo effect, perceived benefits, and social reinforcement are all factors that can influence an athlete's experience with ice baths.

It is important to consider the psychological as well as the physiological aspects of recovery when designing a recovery plan for yourself. If you like Ice baths, go for it. But as far as actual physical benefits go, you're probably better just getting some good nutrition and more sleep.