Ice baths and cold water immersion have become popular tools to speed up recovery. However, a lot of research is now suggesting that this approach could hinder rather than assist your long-term performance. This is scary because as a coach and trainer I have witnessed the trend catch on at a junior level and am seeing young athletes using ice baths after all their sessions. Icing reduces inflammation which is important in the case of acute injuries and swelling that are restricting function. While this is true, the goal shouldn’t be to ice so thoroughly that you completely eradicate muscle-tissue inflammation. Inflammation occurs for a reason and by eradicating this step in the natural recovery process you are also shutting off the protein synthesis that is necessary for strength and endurance adaptation that occurs after bouts of training, particularly intense training. Without this adaptation, people are likely to over train and end up injured. You could think of inflammation as your muscles’ biochemical call for help. “Ouch, we’re damaged”, they are telling the rest of the body. “Come help us repair!“ An alternative approach might be ‘contrast baths’. These involve alternating between cold water and warm water (not hot water) as often as four or five times in 15 to 20 minutes, spending about two-thirds of your time in the cold water (eg several cycles of 2 minutes in cold water, followed by 1 minute in warm water.) The idea is to cause blood vessels to repeatedly dilate and constrict, thereby pumping extra blood through your legs in a way that might facilitate both recovery and muscle repair, without shutting off the inflammatory response.
Key points to consider
Ice baths are controversial. If you choose to use them, figure out why and don’t just do it because it’s what everyone else is doing
Use them when you are really sore or injured or need to recover, quickly – for an impending race for example. If there’s no urgency – eg after normal training - let nature take its course
Don’t make ice baths too cold. Cool is probably cold enough
Experiment with temperature and duration and see what works best for you
Keep a detailed training log, and let results be your guide
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