Ice Bath Impact on Muscles

Get an ice baths post-workout is not just an athletic rite of passage. It can actually hasten recovery and get you ready for your next bout, according to research from the American Council on Exercise.

Ten freezing minutes is the magic number to recover from back-to-back workout days, whether you’re runningOpens a New Window., power bikingOpens a New Window., or weightliftingOpens a New Window.. In a six-week study, ice bathers were better able to match their exertion level one day to the next compared with those who just took a nice shower.

Some helpful notes: Those who iced for 20 minutes had no better results than those who soaked for 10. And try to take a dip within two hours of your workout. Finally, if you’re struggling to stay in the cold, ice in 10 one-minute increments.

In addition to the ice bath, some athletes use and contrast water therapy (alternating between cold water and warmer water) to get the same effect. From elite runners to many professional rugby and football players, the post-workout ice bath is a common practice routine.

Like many practices, it’s good to question whether this works. See what research says about the pros and cons of cold-water immersion or contrast water therapy after exercise.

The Theory Behind Cold Immersion After Exercise

The theory behind ice baths is related to the fact that intense exercise causes microtrauma, which is tiny tears in your muscle fibers. This microscopic muscle damage is actually a goal of exercise as it stimulates muscle cell activity and helps repair the damage and strengthen the muscles (muscle hypertrophy). But it is also linked with delayed onset muscle pain and soreness (DOMS), which occurs between 24 and 72 hours after exercise.

The ice bath was believed to:

  • Constrict blood vessels and flush waste products, like lactic acid, out of the affected tissue
  • Decrease metabolic activity and slow down physiological processes
  • Reduce swelling and tissue breakdown


Then, with rewarming, the increased blood flow was believed to speed up circulation, and in turn, improve the healing process.

Although there is no current protocol regarding the ideal time and temperature for cold immersion routines, most athletes or trainers who use them recommend a water temperature between 54 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit (12 to 15 degrees Celsius) and immersion times of five to 10 minutes, and sometimes up to 20 minutes.

While that’s the theory behind the cold water immersion for exercise recovery, conclusive research about the pros, cons and ideal time and temperatures is still a ways off.

Whether the science supports the ice bath theory or not, many athletes swear that an ice bath after intense training helps them recover faster, prevent injury, and just feel better. You can give this a try to see if it works for you. But if you decide you don’t like it, feel free to skip it the next time.

How to Do Cold Water Therapy :

If you are going to try cool or cold water immersion after exercise, don’t overdo it. One review of studies found the best routine was 11 to 15 minutes of immersion at a temperature between 52 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit (11 to 15 degrees Celsius. That should be enough time to get the benefit and avoid the risks.

Because cold can make muscles tense and stiff, it’s a good idea to fully warm up about 30 to 60 minutes later with a warm shower or a hot drink.

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