Ice Baths for Recovery: Does it really work?

Ice Bath

You’ve seen it on social media, on the news, videos online, your favourite athletes, and even online-influencers do it. Ice Baths have become the new worldwide trend.

But is it all a fad? Is this all hype?

We’re going to tell you all about it, and answer – Does it really work?

Firstly, what is an ice bath?

Ice Baths (also referred to as Cold Water Immersion) involves submerging yourself in a bath of water at approximately 10-15 degrees Celsius for 10-15 minutes . This is often done following moderate-high-intensity exercise.

Now you might be wondering – “Why would I want to fill my bathtub up with ice and jump in?”

So, Why?

It might not sound like the most fun activity but this “No Pain, No Gain” theory might just be the key. The main selling point of ice baths is its supposed benefit in improving muscle recovery after exercise.

But How?

Ice baths help by:

  • Reducing swelling/inflammation
  • Improving circulation; thus helping flush away waste products such as lactic acid (a by-product our bodies produce when we break down glucose to produce energy)

This in turn has the potential to reduce muscle pain and DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), allowing for a faster return back to activity/exercise.

What does the research say?

In 2019 a study compared the effectiveness of ice baths compared to massage and using a foam roller. Its results showed that ice baths were more effective at reducing lactate and participants had lower perception of muscle soreness compared to massage and foam rolling (although not statistically significant).

A meta-analysis (a report comparing several results from independent studies) in 2012,  found that 14 studies suggested cold water immersion may be effective at reducing muscle soreness in the first 96 hours post-exercises. It also found that it may improve recovery for explosive muscle power, but not necessarily strength.

There are other studies that have suggested otherwise. In 2020 a small study compared cold water ice baths to room temperature baths post a 10km run and it found that ice baths were no more effective. 

So does it really work? Is it worth it?

Although there are several studies that suggest Ice Baths or Cold Water Immersion can be effective there still is still plenty of research to be done to confirm if it is the best method for recovery.

It is a modality that has the potential to work for some if performed in a controlled and safe manner, and if one can tolerate the cold!

But if this isn’t for you there are also other methods and tools that can help with your recovery post-exercise like – massage, stretching, foam rolling, and looking at other behaviours outside physical activity such as your nutrition and sleep.