Give Ice Baths the Cold Shoulder

Ice baths are part of the basic routine for most athletes. So is it possible that this frigid dip doesn’t actually do them any good? Researchers are leaning toward yes. What’s more, ice baths may actually prove detrimental in the long run.

Athletes lounging in freezing water is an image we’ve all seen. It’s become a sign of hard work, of physical achievement. Perhaps that’s why some people swear by the ice bath even though science hasn’t backed up its usefulness.

“Honestly, the placebo effect is very powerful. So, if they think it’s going to help and it makes them feel good about it and they think they do better, I’m not going to tell them not to do it,” says Naomi Crystal, the author of a University of New Hampshire study that cast aspersions on the benefits of ice baths.

One Study’s Findings

In her study, Crystal had 20 active men run at a steep grade for 40 minutes at a moderate pace. Half the men then did an ice bath, and the other half did nothing. She recorded their strength, reported soreness, and blood levels of chemokine ligand 2 (CCL2) — a marker for inflammation — over the next three days. Her findings surprised even her.

Strength and soreness were equal in both groups. There was a trend toward higher levels of CCL2 in the ice bath group, but the difference wasn’t statistically significant (meaning it wouldn’t hold up to scientific standards). Still, Crystal says the CCL2 results, although technically insignificant, hint at a potentially important deduction: over time, ice baths might be damaging.

Why You Might Want to Avoid Ice Baths

Crystal says that previous research has found that ice baths might hinder your body’s ability to adapt. If the CCL2 levels are to blame, the problem may be that ice baths reduce inflammation enough to interfere in the body’s natural rebuilding process.

This would likely be an effect that only becomes significant over time, so an occasional ice bath probably does no harm (although it may not do any good either). Basically, there isn’t enough evidence in favor of or against this chilling soaks to force your decision, but you now have a decent reason to opt out, if you so desire. “I hate ice baths. They’re painful!” says Crystal. “So for somebody who doesn’t enjoy them and doesn’t want to do them, they’re off the hook.”

Alternatives to the Ice Bath

If you’re still worried about recovering from an intense workout, there are other ways to mimic what ice baths supposedly do to help. It’s all about pushing fluids out of your muscles, which ice baths purportedly do through water pressure and vasoconstriction from the cold. In lieu of this, you could use compression clothing or massage. Crystal’s simply suggests that people keep moving after their workout. So, yes, you may have to avoid the comfort of your couch right after your run, but at least you’ll still be able to feel your toes.