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Do Post-Workout Ice Baths Help With The Recovery of Sore Muscles?

In recent times, there’s been a lot of debate over whether an ice bath is useful in helping athletes recover from sore muscles or not. Some critics argue that ice baths don’t have any capacity whatsoever to alleviate soreness and may even make recovery difficult for athletes. In this text, we are going to reveal the truth about ice baths and their efficacy in the post-workout recovery of sore muscles. 

What is an ice bath?

Although the name itself has given the definition away, an ice bath is a component of sports therapy that uses ice or cold water to treat soreness. Typically, Ice baths are recommended for athletes who have recently undergone intense training and have developed sore muscles in the process. As it is touted to be a recovery influencer, ice baths have become popular amongst athletes of diverse sports. 

During the ice bath or cold-water immersion, the greater part of the athlete’s body will be submerged in ice or cold water for some time. While there is controversy surrounding the use of ice baths, many athletes have come out to say that it has helped them recover from sore muscles after undergoing strenuous training. Athletes like Karyn Marshall, the winner of the 1987’s women weightlifting championship, took part in an ice bath immersion therapy after competing in 2011’s CrossFit Games. She even shared a few pointers with other athletes who want to give ice bath therapy a trial, after an intense exercise. 

History of Ice baths – How it all started 

According to the article published in The Globe And Mail website on the 18th of November, 2016, ice baths became popular in the sports world around the 1990s. They were touted to have near-magical ability to speed up the healing process of aching muscles after training. So many Pro teams adopted ice baths for their training regimen. Consequently, they installed specially designed bathtubs which circulate water at specified temperatures, ranging from 10 to 15 degrees Celsius. Other people (non-pro team members) who adopted the ice bath training regimen for the acceleration of sore muscle recovery, simply dumped ice cubes in a bucket or bathtub.

The adoption of an ice bath training regimen for athletes who are dealing with sore muscles after workouts continued to gain prominence across the globe, until 2010. In that time, a counter-attack on the effectiveness of ice bath therapy in helping athletes recuperate from sore muscles began. The whole argument was based on ice baths potency in alleviating cellular stress and inflammation after intense training or workout. Critics argued that an ice bath-induced recovery can compromise the signals sent to the sore muscles, which makes them adapt to the strain and become stronger. Thus, if an athlete submerges him/herself in an ice bath after completing a 60 minutes’ run, the ice bath may reduce the strain felt by the athlete’s muscles. So the athlete will feel as though the 60 minutes’ run was a 40 minutes’ jog. Ultimately, the athlete will enjoy the momentary comfort that the ice bath provides, but the purpose of running that far will be defeated.

In the last decade, research on ice baths’ potency in accelerating the mending the process of sore muscles have volleyed the debate back and forth without resolving it. Now, a couple of new researches have added a twist to the debate – and created the case, where “should I” or “should I not”, are not the main questions with regards to ice-bathing. As an alternative, you should ask “why,” “for whom”, and “when”. 

New studies on ice bath therapy

In the past, many controversies were surrounding the use of ice bath therapy to speed up the recovery of sore muscles. Maybe because there is no conclusive evidence corroborating the good reports that have been associated with cold water immersion. But that is about to change. Recent studies on ice baths therapy (conducted by physiology experts), suggests that it can speed up post-workout recovery of sore muscles. 

The first report: A while ago, The European Journal of Applied Physiology published a befuddling report, which explored the variation of Inflammation cellular markers in athletes, using blood tests and muscle biopsies. This study produced a result that is both surprising and befuddling. The research was conducted by physiology experts from Norway, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan. To achieve the results, the test subjects were asked to perform 45 minutes intense lower-body workout. After they had completed the 45 minutes’ workout, they rested for 5 minutes and were submerged in a 10 C ice bath for 10 minutes. The blood tests and muscle biopsies results show that the inflammatory cellular markers were not influenced by the ice bath, in any way. The cellular inflammation markers of the cold water immersed athletes have comparable characteristics with those observed in athletes who submit to a 10 minutes’ cool-down ride on a stationary bike. While this report may favor the critics more than the aficionados of ice bath therapy, it does not mean that ice bath therapy is a complete waste of time. 

Jonathan Peake  (the lead researcher of this study) and his team of equally capable researchers made it clear that ice baths have other impacts on the human body, which may help speed up muscular recuperation. For instance, ice baths have the potential to reduce blood flow and vary the temperature in the muscles. This goes without saying that there are countless studies on the internet, which suggests ice baths have calming effects that may reduce how sore an athlete feels after a workout. The second study drives this home and seals the debate on ice baths potency in the post-workout recovery of sore muscles. 

The second report: This report was published by The European Journal of Applied Physiology, and it is more favorable than the first report. The research was conducted by a team of researchers at LJMU (Liverpool John Moores University), and it explores the formation of new mitochondria in the muscles of nine male athletes submerged in an ice bath after a strenuous workout. To achieve the results, the test subjects were asked to perform 45 minutes’ interval running workout. After they had completed the 45 minutes’ workout, they were submerged in a 10 C ice bath for 10 minutes. The blood tests and muscle biopsies results show that the ice bath influenced the formation of blood vessels and new mitochondria  – two vital adaptations induced by endurance training. 

This report reverberates two preceding findings that suggest ice baths may trigger adaptations during endurance training. And it goes against other findings on strength training, including one of Jonathan Peake-led studies, which discovered a slight increment in the strength of subjects who submerged themselves in ice baths after a resistance exercise throughout 12 weeks.

This report shows that: Ice baths are more appropriate for athletes who are undergoing endurance training but inappropriate for athletes who are undergoing strength training. On the other hand, this statement may very well be an oversimplification of the whole idea of ice bath therapy.

Robert Allan, a co-author of the new study, points out that cellular recovery is multidimensional and can be influenced by different variables. He also gave an illustration of how a loss in one cellular adaptation can trigger again in another cellular type, that will trump the loss or reduce the pain felt in future workouts. He also points out that sore muscle recovery may vary significantly depending on the sports category. For instance, athletes of contact sports like ice hockey may find ice baths helpful compared to heavy weight lifters. 

Our deductions and conclusions on ice baths debate 

After going through a series of supportive and contradictory reports on the potency of ice baths in alleviating post-workout soreness, we have come up with our deductions on the debate. We know for a fact, from our previous discussions on this page, that ice baths are potent in the post-workout recovery of sore muscles. However, that is not the real question here. The real question is, how potent is an ice bath therapy for alleviating post-workout soreness?

Generally, strenuous activities, training, and workouts trigger microscopic tears in the muscles. Which may result in a painful sensation in the affected area. It is important that we feel this pain as it triggers adaptations, which helps the muscles get stronger. This exercise-induced soreness is known as DOMS  (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness), and it occurs within 24 – 48 hours after a workout. While ice baths may reduce the soreness in your muscles, it may not be as effective as an ibuprofen drug, post-workout nutrition, or compression. This brings us to our assumptions and conclusions on Ice baths effectiveness in alleviating post-workout soreness.

  1. Ice baths are great for providing temporary relief after workouts
  2. Ice baths may reduce inflammation
  3. Ice baths promote endurance adaptations
  4. Ice baths reduce body temperature, which improves blood flow
  5. Ice baths are not for everyone
  6. Ice baths can boost post-workout recovery; by about 20%
  7. Ice baths act as a light compression, which may improve blood flow and alleviate muscle soreness. 

Safety concerns 

Now that we have associated ice baths with wellness advantages let’s talk about the cons of taking an ice bath after a workout to reduce muscle soreness.

Although there is a lack of correspondence between the scientific and medical communities over Ice baths potency in alleviating post-workout soreness, both communities have agreed that ice baths have a few detrimental implications on the wellbeing of athletes. 

  1. Hypothermia: as the athlete will be submerged in ice (10 to 15 C) for 10 minutes or more, odds are the athlete’s bodily temperature will fall below the recommended value. If at the end of the day, the athlete’s overall temperature drops below 35 Celsius, he or she would be exposed to hypothermia. This condition may expose the athlete to certain complications in the future. 
  2. Shock: Ice baths can also expose athletes to shock; when blood flow or circulation is inhibited. This usually happens when the athlete spends too much time in the ice bath. As a result, blood streaming through the veins and arteries becomes excessively viscous. In so doing, inhibiting free flow through the blood vessels. Severe cases of cold-induced shock can cause cardiac arrest for the athlete. 
  3. Sudden cardiac death: extreme exposure to cold temperatures have been associated with sudden cardiac death. As a result, athletes who rely on ice bath therapy to alleviate muscle soreness after an intense workout must protect themselves from extreme exposure to cold.  

To reduce your exposure to the risks mentioned above of taking an ice bath, cover the susceptible part of your body with waterproof materials. Keep your toes warm by wearing a pair of rubberized booties and put on rubberized briefs to keep your midsection warm while you are taking the ice bath. When it comes to ice bath and cold water immersion therapy, the potential risks increase with the time spent in the bathtub. So keep it short and don’t overdo it. We recommend that you don’t stay longer than 10 minutes in a 10 degrees’ Celsius ice bath. That way, you’ll enjoy the benefits of submerging your sore muscles in an ice bath without exposing yourself to the dangers. 

Verdict 

Do post-workout ice baths help with the recovery of sore muscles? Potentially, Yes. The truth of the matter is that there is still a lot of controversy surrounding the use of ice baths in the alleviation of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. While we await conclusive evidence which will prove once and for all, that ice baths are potent in alleviating post-workout muscle soreness, you can enjoy the numerous benefits that an ice bath offers. In recent times, we have seen a lot of testimonies from different athletes about the near-magical power of ice baths in sore muscle recovery. Combine those testimonies with these reports (report 1 and report 2), and you’ll see the truth: Ice baths are great for post-workout recovery of sore muscles.  

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