You've seen pro athletes do it: gritting their teeth as they ease themselves into a frigid tank of ice and water. But should you add ice baths your recovery routine?

We apply ice packs to swollen and injured areas to promote healing, so it only makes an ice bath can do the same for your whole body. Ice baths claim to reduce swelling caused by muscle fiber breakdown to help decrease inflammation and, thus, your recovery time. Essentially, the ice slows down your cell's processes, while the water applies very light compression, to help circulate blood throughout your entire body and move waste products, like lactic acid, outside of the muscle. This speeds up the recovery time, leaving athletes feeling less muscle soreness  the next day to gain a competitive edge against their opponents. But are they always worth it?

Research has been mixed. While some studies have shown ice baths to be beneficial, others have reported no significant difference between those that used an ice bath post-workout and those that didn’t. Some studies have even shown an increase, not a decrease, in delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).  It is clear, however, that most of the research has been done on endurance athletes in exhausted states after endurance runs or intense competition. 

 A new study in the Journal of physiology, however, shows that taking an ice bath after strength training can actually weaken the muscles. Immersing your muscles in cold water blunts the activity of the satellite cells and pathways that help the body build muscle for up to two days afterward, negatively effecting your recovery, and thus, your results.

If you're an endurance athlete, there is enough evidence to argue that an ice bath, while tough to endure, can help you recover after a particularly intense competition. If building and maintaining muscle mass is high on your priority list, it's probably not worth the discomfort.

Better post workout recovery methods include: foam rolling, stretching, and proper nutrition. Or, if you want to try ice baths but can't stomach the chill, try contrast showers: alternating hot and cold temperatures while taking your post workout shower to dilate and constrict the blood vessels, helping to flush out lactic acid for quicker recovery.

by Kelly Turner

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