The Cold Hard Truths About Ice Baths and Muscle Recovery

Ice baths, or cold water immersion (CWI), have long been used by high level strength and power athletes to enhance recovery from high intensity matches and training sessions. Although the exact mechanisms are not fully understood, there are some conflicting findings that suggest CWI may or may not be an effective recovery alternative for weightlifters, powerlifters, and other athletes. Here are the cold-hard facts and findings on CWI, the potential benefits, and possible detrimental long-term effects on muscle recovery and adaptation as we currently know them.


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The Cold Hard Facts About Ice Baths (Cold Water Immersion)

  • CWI has been shown to be a viable alternative recovery method for increased power production and neuromuscular function following strenuous training, which can be beneficial for power athletes.
  • Conversely, unlike the significant effects on power and neuromuscular function, CWI has not been shown to increase strength performance when compared with non CWI subjects.
  • Whole body immersion has been shown to be more effective for systematic recovery than partial or one limb submersion.
  • The long term effects on ongoing CWI treatments have yet to be fully established. However, some research suggests potential detrimental long-term effects on muscle adaptation when using CWI as a recovery tool to alleviate pain and allow for subsequent bouts of intense training. (More on that below.)

Beneficial Acute Effects of Cold Water Immersion (CWI)

Following intense training, CWI can be used to acutely decrease muscle soreness, inflammation, delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and neuromuscular fatigue: all of which may allow lifters and athletes to continue to train in subsequent high intensity sessions.

Muscle Soreness

Within the first 24 hours, CWI has been shown to decrease a subject’s perceived muscle soreness primarily through pain inhibition and lower pain sensation. Additionally, CWI impairs nerve conduction velocity, which decreases muscle spindle activity, allowing a muscle to relax and further alleviate pain.

[Many athletes find soft tissue work can be really helpful for recovery — check out the best foam roller for your needs!]

Muscle Inflammation

CWI has been shown to be an effective means to reduce edema (fluid retention) following exercise-induced muscle damage. Through vasoconstriction (construction of blood vessels), which occurs during CWI, there is a decrease in lymph fluid and blood flow, minimizing the pressure place on pain receptors.

DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness)

CWI has been shown to decrease DOMS 24-48-72-96 hours post exercise, especially in strength and power athletes who train under high intensity or eccentric based training.

Neuromuscular Fatigue and Function

Significant improvements within the first 24 hours, but important to note that normal neuromuscular function returned to was seen in both CWI and control groups within 48 following intense exercise. This suggests that for athletes training hours apart, CWI can increase neuromuscular function faster than passive recovery.

Perceived Recovery

Research suggests that due to the skin temperature during and post CWI, subjects experience an increased perceived sense of recovery as the skin warms post bathing. Additionally, while submerged, the weightlessness and hydrostatic pressures experienced may inhibit muscle contractions, allowing for great stress relief and relaxation resulting in greater perceived recovery. Furthermore, some research suggests greater perceived subjective recovery of trained athletes following CWI treatment after intense exercise.

Potential Detrimental Effects of Cold Water Immersion (CWI)

Despite some evidence that shows CWI’s significant effect on acutely (24-96 hours) increasing recovery, there is some evidence to suggest it has detrimental effects on long-term performance in strength and power athletes.

Long-Term Muscle Adaptation

Muscle adaption is reliant upon a series of metabolic and hormonal indicators at the cellular level. Following exercise-induced muscle damage, CWI has been shown in some studies to NEGATIVELY impact circulating hormones; such as Insulin-like growth factor-1, testosterone, and growth hormone. Additionally, the lack of blood flow and diminished cellular permeability (passing on hormones and fluids between cells), although responsible for significant decreases in pain, can also inhibit the adaptation process.


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Should You Give Cold Water Immersion (CWI) a Go?

The acute effects of CWI have been shown to significantly decrease muscle soreness and enhance perceived recovery, but long-term usage of CWI may inhibit the very physiological responses and adaptations that training sessions seek to elicit. Hormonal responses and blood flow, which are responsible for muscle adaptation and strength, are depended upon the same parameters that CWI attempts to alleviate. It has been suggested to administer CWI on a selective basis when short-term recovery is vital for athletes.

Want to test it out? Research suggested that the optimal total time for cold water immersion is anywhere between 8-10 minutes, either in 2-4 minute intervals with rests of 1-2 minutes between, or one continuous bout. In most studies, water temperatures ranged from 50-60 degrees fahrenheit.

Don’t have enough ice? Some studies suggest that cold water alone, without ice, with water temperature of 60-70 degrees fahrenheit may have the same response as colder water.

Featured image: @gabriela_ochoa on Instagram