Post-workout muscle recovery can be an important part of your exercise routine. Most physical trainers will recommend various types of tips, tricks, moves or strategies you can take on after doing something intense. Professional athletes will use them after practice or big events. In this area, ice baths – also known as cold water immersion – have become popular in some fields. But are they right for you?
Should Your Post-Workout Muscle Recovery Include Ice Baths?
The practice of ice baths for post-workout muscle recovery has to do with sinking into water that is about 50ºF for between five and ten minutes after exercising intensely. The claim is that this practice will improve the recovery of your muscles and boost your athletic performance in future exercises.
What’s the point of view of this physical trainer? I’m just not buying it. Not for the average person following an average exercise routine at least.
How is Cold Water Immersion Meant to Work?
We’ve all used ice to reduce pain and swelling at some point. A pulled muscle, a bonked head, a sprained ankle…they can all benefit from 20-minute sessions against a bag of frozen peas. Cooling muscles decreases the transmission of nerve impulses, making an area feel less pain. It can also constrict muscle blood vessels, decreasing fluid diffusion that might cut back on acute inflammation resulting from your exercising.
There are other benefits that can result from ice baths as well, such as restoring heart rate variability – the changing timing (in milliseconds) between heartbeats.
Does it Really Work as Post-Workout Muscle Recovery?
For professional athletes and bodybuilders, an ice bath can help as post-workout muscle recovery in that it helps to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness and stiffness that can occur over the following day or so.
That said, scientific study examining the impact that cold water immersion has on later exercise performance has been inconsistent at best. Some studies show positive effects that are quite minor, some show no difference at all, and some even show some negative effects from the practice. Interestingly, the exercises I thought were most likely to benefit from the practice – strength training – were actually the type of workout most often showing negative effects from ice baths. It’s endurance training most likely to benefit from ice baths, but even there the effects were slight.
Overall, I don’t recommend them. If you find that icing your body for post-workout muscle recovery following endurance workouts are helpful to you, I wouldn’t recommend against them. It’s just not something I tell my clients to do because any advantages they gain are minimal at best and there is the risk that they will face disadvantages instead.