Athlete Recovery Part 2: Ice Baths – Do they actually work?

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Metrifit Athlete Monitoring System

One of the most controversial and talked-about issues in modern sport science is undoubtedly the idea of ice-baths in athlete recovery. There have been many conflicting views of this exercise, and some theorists believe it to be a necessity for athletes in their recovery, while other experts believe it does more harm than good for athletes, and then there are those who believe ice-baths do absolutely nothing at all. With so many differing opinions, it’s important to know what is actually true and false in relation to this activity – and that’s what this article will do.ice bath pic

Initially, it is important to understand the origins of ice-baths and their use in sport. While the activity doesn’t have an exact launch date into sport, it’s generally considered to have made a meaningful impact in the mid 2000’s, with Paula Radcliffe one of the pioneer sport stars bringing ice baths to prominence. She credited ice-baths as being one of the biggest influences of her 2002 European 10,000m victory at Munich. Since then, ice-baths have gradually been used by across a number of sports to varying degrees. Yet what are the perceived benefits of ice-baths and what do they claim to achieve?

The most popular and widespread use of ice baths is for the treatment of sports injuries, strained muscles and general soreness. The science of Athlete Recovery is based on centuries old knowledge that ice packs applied to injuries are very effective in reducing inflammation and pain. The idea here is that lactate builds up in the muscles as glucose in the blood stream is broken down and used as an energy source. Too much lactic acid build up can cause the muscles to function poorly and over a long period of time feelings of fatigue, heavy legs and general tiredness can set in. When an athlete gets into an ice bath for five to 10 minutes, the icy cold water causes their blood vessels to tighten and drains the blood out of their legs. After 10 minutes their legs feel cold and numb. So when an athlete gets out of the bath, their legs fill up with ‘new’ blood that invigorates their muscles with oxygen to help the cells function better. At the same time, the more blood coming into their legs will have to leave as well, draining away and at the same time taking with it the lactic acid that has built up from their performance.

Certain research has backed-up these claims that ice baths are an effective recovery exercise for athletes. This included the exercise running in conjunction with other activities in some cases, e.g. stretching, active recovery etc., along with it acting as a standalone exercise. Research has been carried out across a number of sports both individual and team orientated. Even though the results point towards the positive effect ice-baths have on athlete recovery, there is still very little concrete evidence that proves ice-baths actually aid in the physiological recovery of athletes – indeed nearly all of the journal articles studied for this piece all ended with “more research is required”, such is the lack of clarity surrounding the subject.

So are all coaches and athletes wrong for using ice-baths as part of their recovery? Some of the recent studies go against these views and claim that ice –baths actually cause more harm than good for the athlete. There is a large school of thought surrounding this idea that ice-baths do not actually aid athlete recovery in any way, and similarly to what was mentioned previously, more in-depth research is required to find out exactly what effects ice-baths have on athlete recovery. Following on from this, many experts believe that ice-baths offer a psychological effect for athletes – i.e. the “placebo” effect, where they feel in better physical shape after the ice-baths, even though the exercise hasn’t necessarily achieved any physiological benefits. The satisfaction level of the athlete increase with ice-baths, and the levels of fatigue decreases, yet again far more in-depth research is needed to separate the facts from the fiction.

Although one of the most common athlete recovery methods around, ice-baths still do not have enough scientific research to prove that they are effective. So for now, it looks like athletes are choosing to stay cold of their own free will!