Q: Do Ice Baths Really Help With Muscle Soreness and Recovery?
A: Taking the cold plunge after a workout has become common in athletes attempting to gain a competitive edge over their opponents. Ice baths propose to reduce swelling and recovery time after a hard session leaving individuals coming back feeling fresher and less sore the next day. But, are they beneficial enough to endure the shivering water after every workout? Likely not.
Cold exposure following a hard workout has long been proposed as a method to reduce tissue swelling due to muscle breakdown and help decrease inflammation. According to Dr. Mike Reinold, head physical therapist for the Boston Red Sox, “the proposed mechanisms of this includes reducing inflammation, flushing out muscles due to constriction of blood cells, decreasing metabolic activity, and compressing the muscles through hydrostatic pressure.” Essentially, by slowing down cell processes and using water to apply light compression, ice baths help to circulate blood throughout the body and move waste products, like lactic acid, outside of the muscle. While some studies have shown these shivering minutes to be beneficial, others have reported no significant difference between those that used an ice bath post-workout and those that didn’t. According to Reinold, “Some studies have even shown an increase in delayed muscle soreness. So the use of ice baths is not clearly safe and effective.”
Despite the contradictory evidence, should average gym-goers forsake science to gain an extra edge? Probably not according. “For the average gym-goer, ice baths seem to be a bit overkill to me. Most of the research has been done on athletes in exhausted or near-exhausted states after long runs or competition.
Most average fitness enthusiasts don't reach that level of exhaustion,” he says. However, don’t forego post-workout recovery all together. Recreational athletes can still apply these concepts to their recovery time without going to the extreme. Dr. Reinold advises athletes make use of contrast showers - essentially alternating hot and cold temperatures while in the shower after a workout - to reap similar benefits. By dilating and then constricting blood vessels, contrast showers help to flush out lactic acid and lead to a quicker recovery.
Although contrast showers can be an extremely useful tool in your arsenal, don’t neglect traditional recovery tactics like foam rolling, stretching, and proper nutrition. Combined together, these strategies can decrease soreness and increase performance after a hard workout without suffering through a brutally cold ice bath.
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