It occurred to me, while preparing this post that I’ve written several pieces on soreness lately. And there’s a good reason for that. Muscle soreness is a fact of life for all athletes, regardless of whether your a runner, baseball player or powerlifter. Because of the many aches and pains we deal with, there have also been many solutions crop up to treat and prevent post-workout soreness.
One of the most prevalent defenses used by athletes is the ice bath. More technically known as cryotherapy, this treatment is exactly what it sounds like: a bath in very, very cold water. Before you go ahead and jump in to give this one a try, you’d probably like to know a few things. What are the benefits of this approach? Is there proof that it actually works?
Supporters of this cold and seemingly drastic method of treatment say that the rewards for enduring it are many. As expected, once your body is exposed to this kind of cold, usually around 55 degrees Fahrenheit, your blood vessels constrict and your metabolism slows down. These two factors combine to reduce swelling and the breakdown of tissue normally associated with strenuous workouts.
The good news keeps coming though, once your out of that cold water. As your blood vessels warm back up, they quickly increase blood flow which flushes the cellular byproducts out of your system. Mixed in with that waste is several chemicals that could also contribute to soreness so their removal should swing things in the opposite direction.
Do They Do All That?
The research, for or against, ice baths is confusing, contradictory and a but muddied. There are several studies that have found that cryotherapy does, in fact, reduce muscle soreness, primarily DOMS.
A meta-analysis of 17 studies seemed to back these results, although that is a relatively small number of studies and the authors of the analysis did raise questions regarding the methods of the trials that were considered. Particularly, there’s the problem of the placebo effect. How do you immerse someone in ice-cold water, without them knowing it? You can’t. So there is always a possibility that their reports of their level of soreness are tainted by psychological effects.
A more recent study, published in July, 2013, considered both relative reports of soreness and more reliable biological markers of swelling. This study found that the ice baths yielded no benefits.
Some have criticized the study, though, for using water that was far too cold and exposing the subjects for far to long. It is true that the 20 minute baths in 40 degree water is much more extreme than is generally used or recommended.
What It All Means
The take away? Science still hasn’t come up with a solid answer on whether or not ice baths can actually help you. But, as with many things, that hasn’t stopped people from using it and loving ice baths. Many runners swear by them and credit the chilly treatment with decades of injury-free activity.
Do your research regarding good techniques and start out slow, if you decide you’d like to try ice baths. As with anything, talk to your doctor before giving this a go since an ice bath could provide an initial shock to your system that might aggravate some conditions.