You’ve probably heard about professional athletes dipping into an ice bath after a particularly hard game or tough workout. But what’s the best way to use ice baths to expedite your recovery — and is it right for your goals?
In case you’re new to the practice, cold water immersion (CWI) is a sports therapy method that’s become increasingly popular among professional and amateur athletes alike. Also called an ice bath or cold water therapy, the practice involves immersing yourself in a tub of ice water that’s between 50 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit. Athletes generally sit in the bath for 15 minutes max after a competition or an intense training session in hopes of speeding recovery.
While research is ongoing to discover the benefits — and potential risks — of using ice baths for recovery, it’s important to consult your doctor or other licensed professional before using the method for your unique goals and physical needs.
Check out the potential benefits of ice baths below.
Potential Benefits of Ice Baths
While scientists continue to evaluate the perks of trying ice baths, there are a range of existing reasons for why you might want to consider taking the plunge yourself.
1.Facilitates a Quick Cooldown
If you exercise in high heat or if you’re strongly impacted when exercising in heat and humidity, an ice bath may help cool your body down quickly after a workout.
A 2015 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise concluded that CWI is effective for treating exercise-induced hyperthermia (when your body overheats to the point of experiencing heat exhaustion or heat stroke, for example). The researchers suggested maximizing body surface contact during immersion while obtaining a water temperature of approximately 10 degrees Celsius could improve the benefit.
2.Promote Muscle Recovery (Maybe)
A small 2020 study in Frontiers in Sports and Active Livinginvestigated the short- and long-term benefits of ice bathing. The study involved only 13 volleyball players, but researchers found that there was a “trend toward a benefit” in terms of muscle recovery when the players used ice baths over a period of 16 days. Researchers did not, however, find any short-term benefit.
3.May Reduce Muscle Soreness
A 2017 study in the Journal of Physiology compared the use of ice baths and active recovery to reduce muscle soreness after exercise. The study points out that cold is often used to reduce blood flow in the muscles to limit inflammation, swelling, and damage to the muscle fibers.
The researchers found that cold water immersion was no more effective than active recovery (like swimming, foam rolling or stretching) to lower post-exercise inflammation. But they suggested that CWI may be useful within competitive settings, particularly for those requiring a short turnaround (think: CrossFit athletes between events or professional swimmers who need to recover quickly between events).
4.Enhance Sleep Quality
A 2021 study in Frontiers in Sports and Active Living investigated whole-body (including the head) cold water immersion and found that the practice reduced body arousal and enhanced some measurements of sleep during the first part of the night.
The researchers noted that this may be particularly useful in an athlete's recovery process after exercise. But they added that future studies are necessary to determine if these sleep outcomes can result in overall recovery optimization.
5.Might Boost Immune Health
A 2014 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencefound evidence that the sympathetic nervous system (the part of your nervous system that reacts to stress) and immune system can be voluntarily influenced through practicing techniques including meditation, breathing techniques and cold water immersion.
And a 2016 study in PLoS One found that a routine practice of hot-to-cold showers resulted in a reduction of days off from work due to illness.
6.Can Help Relieve Stress
The use of cold stimulation has been studied to see if it can affect heart rate and heart rate variability. Both markers can be used as indicators of stress. A 2018 study in JMIR Formulative Researchfound that cold stimulation applied to the neck was able to improve both markers.
7.Improve Overall Well-being
A 2020 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (IJERPH) focused on ice swimming and found that exposure to cold can have psychological benefits like decreased tension, fatigue and negative mood states. They also said that it helped relieve pain in those who suffered from rheumatism, fibromyalgia, or asthma and improved the general well-being of swimmers.
8.Other Short-Term Benefits of Ice Baths
A 2014 review in the North American Journal of Medical Sciencesinvestigated the benefits of general hydrotherapy and concluded that water immersion (with the head out of the water) at various temperatures (32 degrees Celsius, 20 degrees Celsius and 14 degrees Celsius) produced these short-term benefits:
- Decreased systolic blood pressure
- Decreased diastolic blood pressure
- Increased dopamine
- Lower cortisol levels
- Lower heart rate
- Reduced water weight
It should be noted that blood pressure and heart rate increased slightly with cold water immersion with temperatures at 14 degrees Celsius.
Should You Take an Ice Bath?
Even though some studies have shown an association between ice bathing and certain health benefits, the practice isn’t right for everyone.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention caution that hypothermia can occur in any water temperature below 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius). They add that cold water immersion can create a specific condition known as immersion hypothermia that develops quickly, as water carries heat from the body 25 times faster than air.
The IJERPH report on the risks and benefits of cold water swimming noted that even though there may be benefits, there’s still a risk of death in people unfamiliar with the practice due to the initial neurogenic cold shock response, a progressive decrease in swimming efficiency, or hypothermia.
If you decide to try cold water immersion for yourself, check with your doctor and then try it in a controlled environment with the help of a trained expert. Some athletic training centers provide spa environments for athletes to test different recovery treatments to see which works best for them. And if you do find that ice baths work, continue to practice other smart recovery techniques to support optimal health and performance.