Ice baths have been popping up for sale left right and centre. I can't have a leisurely scroll through TikTok without the odd advert showing in my feed. But is the surge in popularity because of the benefits of ice baths or is it just another fad that will pass with time?
Read on to find my personal opinion on ice baths for recovery and the supposed mental health benefits of cold plunges with your morning coffee.
What is the theory behind ice baths?
Ice baths are a common practice among athletes to reduce muscle pain and soreness after training sessions and competitions.The rationale behind recovery ice baths and cold tubs is that the cold stimulates sympathetic nerve fibers, which react by signaling blood vessels in the area to constrict and send blood back to the core to protect vital organs. This rush of blood away from the extremities reduces blood flow to the areas being iced and slows the metabolic processes in these regions, including the inflammatory response, thus reducing any swelling that might otherwise happen.
- Constriction of blood vessels: The ice bath will cause constriction of blood vessels, which helps with the flushing of waste products, such as lactic acid, out of the affected tissue
- Reduction of metabolism: With the cold temperature, there will be a reduction of the metabolism, which can cause a slowing down of the physiological processes
- Reduction of swelling and tissue breakdown: The cold temperature will reduce swelling and tissue breakdown
Shift of lactic acid: Ice water immersion is also said to be able to shift lactic acid
However, recent studies suggest that cold water immersion is no more effective than other forms of active recovery that minimise inflammatory responses after exercise.
A 2015 study in the Journal of Physiology showed reduced long-term gains in muscle mass and strength, which is in line with the findings of a 2014 study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, which showed decreases in strength using cold immersion. Therefore, while ice baths for recovery may be worth trying, they may decrease gains in strength and muscle growth.
It is important to use ice baths with caution and in a controlled and safe environment where you can safely rewarm your body. It is also best to do cold baths with at least one other person, and anyone with circulation issues or diseases, peripheral vascular disease, who is or may be pregnant, who has a history of frostbite, who has open wounds, who's had recent surgeries or heart problems should consult with a doctor before taking an ice bath.
Ice Therapy vs Heat Therapy
Both cryotherapy (cold therapy) and heat therapy through infrared saunas have been used for centuries to ease pain and speed up recovery. Here are some of the differences between the two.
Cryotherapy (Cold Therapy)
- Reduces inflammation and swelling
- Stops the process of excess inflammation, reducing the risk of muscle soreness and injury
- Treats existing injuries by reducing swelling and inflammation
- Can shift lactic acid
- Better for pain relief immediately after exercise and at 24 hours
- Better for reducing muscle damage at 24 hours
- Better for strength recovery after 24 hours
- Dilates blood vessels and promotes blood flow
- Relaxes muscles
- Increases metabolism, which improves healing and reduces pain
- Better for strength recovery immediately after exercise
- Better for preventing elastic tissue damage after exercise
- Better for reducing muscle damage immediately after exercise
- Better for pain reduction immediately after exercise and at 24 hours
It is important to note that both cryotherapy and heat therapy are effective for enhancing muscle recovery and reducing muscle damage. However, research has shown that contrasting therapy is no more effective than other recovery techniques
It is also important to use both therapies with caution and in a controlled and safe environment where you can safely rewarm your body. Anyone with circulation issues or diseases, peripheral vascular disease, who is or may be pregnant, who has a history of frostbite, who has open wounds, who's had recent surgeries or heart problems should consult with a doctor before using either therapy
Ice bath benefits
Mental Health Benefits
Cold plunges or ice baths have been found to have several mental health benefits. Here are some of the benefits that have been backed by scientific research:
- Reduction of depression symptoms: Studies have shown that those with depression who take regular cold baths had a significant improvement in their symptoms compared to those who did not take cold baths
- Reduction of anxiety: Regular cold showers and ice baths have been found to help reduce anxiety and improve the mood of participants
- Improved mood and reduced stress: After the initial shock of stepping into an ice-cold tub of water, many people experience an elevated mood. This is likely due to the release of endorphins, hormones that act as natural painkillers, which have been shown to improve mood and reduce stress.
- Improved cognitive performance: Taking regular ice baths can help improve your focus, concentration, and overall cognitive performance
- Increased stress tolerance: Cold exposure causes the body to produce hermetic stress, which actually serves as "good stress" as it activates genetic pathways that help in the regulation of life stressors. This increase in stress regulation decreases the body's sensitivity to stress and increases stress tolerance
- Functional system reset: Cold plunges can act as a functional bodily system reset, allowing you to take your mind off things and relax
It is important to note that cold plunges should be used with other treatments, especially if you suffer from clinical depression or anxiety. When in doubt if this is the right treatment for you, be sure to consult your doctor.
Ice baths have been found to have several benefits in terms of recovery from exercise. Here are some of the benefits that have been backed by scientific research:
- Reduction of inflammation and swelling: Ice baths reduce inflammation and swelling by changing the way blood and other fluids flow through your body. When you sit in cold water, your blood vessels constrict, and when you get out, they dilate, which helps flush away metabolic waste post-workout.
- Reduction of muscle soreness: Ice baths have been found to reduce muscle soreness after exercise. A 2018 meta-analysis of 99 studies found that ice baths and massages were the most effective at lowering inflammation, and massages were best for reducing muscle soreness and fatigue
- Improved workout recovery: Ice baths can help improve workout recovery by reducing swelling and tissue breakdown, shifting lactic acid away from your muscles, and improving circulation.
- Cooling down: Ice baths can help you cool down when you're overheated after a workout, which can help you avoid heat stroke and heat exhaustion
- Boosted circulation: When you get out of an ice bath, your entire body begins to warm up, which causes your circulation to increase and your muscles to relax
- Improved immune system: Ice baths can support a healthy immune system
- Boosted mood: Ice baths can boost your mood by releasing endorphins, hormones that act as natural painkillers, which have been shown to improve mood and reduce stress.
It is important to note that while ice baths for recovery may be worth trying, they may decrease gains in strength and muscle growth. It is also important to use ice baths with caution and in a controlled and safe environment where you can safely rewarm your body.
Alternative recovery methods
Nutrition is essential for recovery, whether it is from injury, or illness. Proper nutrition can help the body heal and recover more quickly, and it can also improve overall health and well-being.Here are some ways that nutrition can aid in recovery:
- Providing essential nutrients: The body needs a variety of nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, protein, and fat, to function properly. Consuming a well-balanced diet that includes all of these nutrients can help the body heal and recover more quickly
- Boosting the immune system: Certain nutrients, such as vitamin C and zinc, can help boost the immune system and reduce the risk of infection during recovery
- Maintaining a healthy weight: Eating a healthy diet can help maintain a healthy weight, which is important for overall health and can also aid in recovery
- Reducing inflammation: Some foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids, have anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce inflammation in the body and aid in recovery
- Providing energy: Consuming enough calories and carbohydrates can provide the energy needed for recovery and can also improve athletic performance
To incorporate nutrition into recovery, it is important to meet with a physician or nutritionist to determine individual nutritional needs and develop a meal plan that is balanced and satisfying
The ideal diet for recovery is not very different from the diet recommended for any healthy person, but the amount of each food group needed may vary depending on the type of recovery and level of physical activity.
Sleep plays a crucial role in recovery, whether it is from exercise or other forms of physical exertion. Here are some ways that sleep can aid in recovery:
- Promoting muscle growth and repair: During deep sleep, the body releases growth hormone, which stimulates muscle growth and repair, bone building, and fat burning. This is why sleep quality before and after exercise is important.
- Allowing the body to rest and repair: Sleep allows the heart to rest and cells and tissues to repair, which can help the body recover after physical exertion. It also facilitates the removal of unnecessary metabolic waste from brain cells, which enhances blood flow to cells and brings important oxygen and glycogen necessary for optimal cognitive performance.
- Improving cognitive performance: Sleep helps everyone to retain and consolidate memories, and contributes to improved performance in the future. It also enhances executive function, which is important for making the correct but often more difficult nutrition decision.
- Reducing the risk of injury: Being overly tired, especially during exercise, could result in reduced reflex times or poor judgment, each of which could cause a training injury.
- Preventing overtraining: Too much exercise and too little sleep could result in overtraining, which could keep you from reaching your goals and lead to an injury that doesn’t allow you to exercise at all
To incorporate sleep into recovery, it is important to get optimal quality and quantity of sleep
The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get 7-9 hours of sleep per night. To improve sleep quality, it is important to establish a regular sleep schedule, avoid caffeine and alcohol before bedtime, and create a relaxing sleep environment.
By prioritizing sleep, individuals can improve their overall health and well-being, and enhance their recovery from exercise and other forms of physical exertion.
Active recovery is a form of low-intensity exercise that a person performs after higher intensity exercise to improve their recovery and performance. It is often considered more beneficial than inactivity, resting completely, or sitting. Active recovery can keep blood flowing and help muscles recover and rebuild from intense physical activity
Here are some examples of active recovery exercises:
- Walking: Walking is a simple and effective way to engage in active recovery. It increases blood circulation without challenging any muscles that may be sore
- Cycling: Cycling is another option for active recovery. It increases blood circulation and helps remove waste products from soft tissue that have been broken down by intense exercise
- Stretching: Stretching is a great way to incorporate active recovery into a workout routine. It helps keep muscles flexible and reduces the risk of injury
- Swimming: Swimming is a low-impact exercise that can be an effective form of active recovery. It helps remove metabolic waste from the muscles and reduces inflammation
- Yoga: Yoga is a gentle form of exercise that can be an effective form of active recovery. It helps stretch and strengthen muscles without straining them
Active recovery should be performed after a workout, and people should engage in light physical activity that raises the heart rate above a resting rate. During active recovery, athletes should avoid the same repetitive movements they performed during training or an event to prevent overuse injuries.
Active recovery is an ideal time to incorporate stretching and massage because the muscles are already warm. By incorporating active recovery into a workout routine, individuals can improve their recovery and performance, and reduce the risk of injury.
Overall, ice baths can play a beneficial role in recovery, especially for more active people, and those taking part in more endurance based sports. It should be noted than using an ice bath immediately after exercise can limit hypertrophy (muscle growth) so it should be avoided after resistance training to avoid this.
A number of people correlate a morning cold plunge to the positive effects on their mental health. Whilst it's hard to objectively measure the physiological effects of this, even if it's placebo... a benefit is a benefit and everyone's personal. So why not give it a try?
The increase in popularity of portable ice baths means it is now relatively cheap and accessible to have an ice bath at home which takes little maintenance. You can order one using my discount code ("aginjuryrehab") from NuRecover today and get 15% off your order.
I'm not sure how enjoyable a cold plunge would be in the winter months while the dark frosty mornings return, though!