Ice Bath: To Bathe Or Not To Bathe

Will an ice bath really aid in recovery?

Please Note: I am not an exercise scientist, doctor, physical therapist or anything of that nature. All the information presented in this document is back up by an expert in the field and will be linked accordingly. If you have medical issues, consult your doctor or physician before taking an ice bath.

Ice baths have become an important part of an athlete’s recovery regimen. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and other stars across all major sports have at least one picture of themselves in an ice bath, but why do they do it? There’s nothing fun about submerging yourself in freezing cold water, even if it does benefit you.

Anyone who works out knows what happens to their muscle during that activity, the fibers tear. Whether it’s weight training, CrossFit, basketball, or whatever else, little tears in your muscles occur during exercise. If you can, think back to when you first started working out, or the first day of tryouts for your sport. Can you remember the pain you felt over the next couple of days? If so, that pain is what exercise scientists call DOMS – delayed onset muscle soreness – and is entirely normal.

When you enter an ice bath or the cold in general, it causes the blood vessels in your body to constrict, reducing your body temperature and making you shiver.  Along with constricting the blood vessels, the lactic acid is pushed out of the muscles; lactic acid is what builds up in an exercised muscle and causes you to feel “the burn.” By removing the lactic acid, and reducing tissue swelling, your muscles will recover more quickly – Jeremy McCormick, Ph.D., from the University of New Mexico says there’s “no experimental research to prove this. Just correlative data,” which is interesting. But, that’s for another time.

Okay, back to baths. When you take an ice bath, it’s anywhere from 10-15 minutes of you sitting in freezing cold water. The temperature of the water varies – typically between 45-60 degrees Fahrenheit – and a lot of the variables surrounding cold water therapy vary as well, so these are only generalities. Often times there are studies with contradictory verdicts. The International Journal of Sports Medicine (2008 issue) ran a test on cyclists and the results showed an improvement in times during time trials; the British Journal of Sports Medicine (2007) stated that heavy weight lifters saw no improvement after an ice bath.

Based on the type of exercise, basketball players could see some improvements or enhanced recovery with cold water therapy.

With all this presented to you, the only way to find out if they work is for you to go out and try it. I’ve taken ice baths, cold showers, and hot showers after workouts and haven’t experienced anything earth-shattering. I do feel great after a cold shower, as it helps wake up my body and I prefer them over ice baths.

It makes more sense to take a cold shower because you’re going to need to take a shower after the ice bath anyway. You’ll get the same benefits and it’s much more efficient.

Everyone’s different, however. Therefore, I encourage you to go out and experiment.