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Taking an after exercise plunge in an ice water bath (a tub of 12 to 15 degrees Celsius ice water) is a common practice among many elite athletes as a way to recover faster, and reduce muscle pain and soreness after intense training sessions or competitions. From elite runners like Paula Radcliff to nearly all professional rugby players, the ice bath is a standard practice routine.

The theory behind ice baths is related to the fact that intense exercise actually causes microtrauma, or tiny tears in muscle fibers. This muscle damage not only stimulates muscle cell activity and helps repair the damage and strengthen the muscles ( muscle hypertrophy), but it is also linked with delayed onset muscle pain and soreness (DOMS) , which occurs between 24 and 72 hours after exercise.

The Science

  • Ice constricts blood vessels and flush waste products, like lactic acid, out of the affected tissues
  • Ice decreases metabolic activity and slow down physiological processes
  • Ice reduces swelling and tissue breakdown

Then, with rewarming, the increased blood flow speeds circulation, and in turn, improves the healing process. Although there is no current protocol regarding the ideal time and temperature for cold immersion routines, most athletes or trainers who use them recommend a water temperature between 12 to 15 degrees Celsius and immersion times of 5 to 10 and sometimes up to 20 minutes.

Research

A study from the July 2008 issue of the International Journal of Sports Medicine found cold water immersion and contrast water therapy may help recovery from short maximal efforts, or during events like stage races where athletes repeat high-intensity efforts on successive days. In this study, researchers had cyclists complete a week of intense daily training routines. After each workout, they used one of four different recovery methods and took nine days off between each week of workouts.

The four recovery methods include:

  • Immersion in a 15 degree C (59 degree F) pool for 14 minutes;
  • Immersion in 38 degree C (100.4 degree F) water for 14 minutes;
  • Alternating between cool and hot water every minute for 14 minutes;
  • 14 minutes of complete rest.

They reported that the cyclists performed better in the sprint and time trial after cool water immersion and contrast water therapy, but their performance declined with both hot water baths and complete rest.

The Results:

  • Cold water immersion after a hard workout won’t hurt and may, in fact, help recovery.
  • Alternating Cold water and warm water baths (contract water therapy) may also help athletes recover.
  • Ice baths are not necessary; cold water baths (24 degrees Celsius) are as good and perhaps better, than ice baths.
  • Active recovery may be as good as cold water immersion for exercise recovery.
  • Passive recovery is not an effective way to recover.
  • Hot baths after hard exercise may decrease recovery time.

Cold Water Immersion

If you are going to try cool or cold water immersion after exercise, don’t overdo it. Ten minutes immersed in 15 degree Celsius water should be enough time to get the benefit and avoid the risks. Because cold can make muscles tense and stiff, it’s a good idea to fully warm up about 30 to 60 minutes later with a warm shower or a hot drink.

Contrast Water Therapy (Hot-Cold Bath)

If you prefer alternating hot and cold baths, the most common method includes one minute in a cold tub (10-15 degrees Celsius) and two minutes a hot tub (about 37-40 degrees Celsius), repeated about 3 times.