Why Athletes Use Ice Baths–And Why You Shouldn’t
Yesterday I read a blog post about ice baths by Nikki Kamball. She is a renewed long distance runner who was named USATF’s Ultra Runner of the year in 2004, 2006, and 2007. Maybe you’ve already read it. If not, you can take a look at it here:
In any case, it made me examine why athletes use ice baths and whether or not is something that beginning runner should consider.
Basically, Nikki’s premise is that long runs, which she says are essential to training distance runners, increase the runner’s risk of injury. She says, “ One simple way to offset the risks inherent to long bouts of running is cold-water immersion, known to many runners as the ice bath.” In sum, she says, “ice baths are one of the most effective ways to offset the damage on on the run.” I agree with Nikki’s view point, that runners need to lessen the time off as a result of injury.This means they need to recover quickly. That said, I’d like to delve a little deeper into the topic of ice baths for athletes and make the case for why this may not be a great idea for beginning runners.
You see, Nikki is an awesome athlete and human being who has inspired and keeps inspiring many runners around the country.
“Finding Traction” is a documentary about Nikki. According to the synopsis, the piece “presents the inspirational story of ultra runner Nikki Kimball and her quest to become the fastest person in history to run America’s oldest hiking trail, the 273-mile Long Trail… In addition to providing an inside look into the journey of an elite athlete, “Finding Traction” gives viewers a new perspective on the endurance of the human body and spirit, and informs us all us, regardless of our sex, of our true potential and inspires us to reach it.”
The documentary has won, among others, the following award:
While I admire this amazing athlete, I have kept up to date on the latest thinking about the benefits of ice baths for athletes. Nikki wrote her post 8 years ago, but it’s still on her site and I think many of her fans may not be aware of the new thinking on the subject. I think I can shed some light.
So, what I’d like to do is share with you my opinion on 3 crucial points made in Nikki’s post.
Point #1: Improve next day training ability. It’s advantageous for runners to speed recovery time or muscle healing after an injury.
Nikki made an extremely important point here. one that I’ve made a fair number of times myself when discussing Athletes and weekend warrior bouts with back pain. The quicker the recovery, the better chances that one will be able to resume their sports passion. Nikki further stated that, “ice baths are one of the most effective ways to offset the damage on the run.”
The theory is that icing injured muscles helps speeds recovery time or muscle healing. If you’re less sore and less fatigued then of course you can potentially train better and increase the benefits of that training. Meaning, you can enhance your chances of becoming stronger and faster. However, New research published in the January issue of the Journal of Sports Sciences claims cold-water immersion “have no benefit in promoting recovery. In fact an increasing body of evidence suggests that cold can quash performance gains.
In fact, in a 2006 study https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16372177 exercise physiologist Motoi yamane at Chukyo University in Aichi, in Japan, found that icing leg muscles after cycling or forearm handgrip exercises interfered with performance gains.
Recently Yamane published a follow-up study https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25760154 at Aichi Mizuho College. He again used weighted handgrip exercises, and corroborated his earlier results.
But They Don’t Run Like Nikki Kamball
Of course it’s important to understand that these were not elite runners like Nikki Kamball, but that’s the point. If you run only twice a week, let’s say, then using ice baths may actually reduce all the gains that you made. A recent study by Llion Roberts and colleagues  compared the effects of Ice baths for ice baths on muscle recovery after 12 weeks of training. He also wanted to study the effects on specific signaling pathways ( trigger for muscle mass and strength).
Here are the results. Ice baths decreased gains in muscle mass and strength and blunted key proteins responsible for muscle growth. This means that if you worked hard in the gym to get stronger so you can go faster, you will erase the gains by taking an ice bath. Again, the subjects in this study were not elite and were training only twice per week—this only reinforces my point.
If you’re running to keep in shape—a short term goal—and not interested in becoming an elite marathon runner, ice baths are not something you should attempt.
Point #2: Ice baths decrease inflammation, soreness, and Fatigue
So the benefits can be illustrated as:
- Reduced inflammation
- Reduce DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness)
- The constriction of blood vessels leads to an increase in the flushing out of toxins. This means a rush of nutrient-rich blood back into injured and fatigued muscles.
Before I address the above points, let me tell you a little story. I ran track in high school, and as part of the training the coach would make us “run them hills”. It worked. After running up one of those monster hills, sprinting the 90 yard dash or being part of a relay race was a cinch. Here’s the thing. The first time I ran up the big hill, I was sore as hell and so tired I could barely make it to the locker room. By the third or fourth run it was a lot easier. My body had adapted. The soreness, fatigue, and even inflammation was part of the adapting process.
This leads to this question:
Might ice baths decrease inflammation and soreness and therefore lessen the trigger for adapting to the training the athlete has just completed.
In other words, by delaying the soreness, fatigue, and inflammation, ice baths may prolong the recovery process.
What About R.I.C.E?
Dr. Gabe Mirkin was the sports medicine doctor who originally coined the acronym, which stands for rest, ice, compression, elevation, in 1978. However, he no longer recommends it to athletes. “We never rest or ice athletes anymore. RICE is fine for someone who doesn’t need to get back to training quickly, but it’s terrible for competitive athletes.” he said. https://www.outsideonline.com/1971446/recovery-ice-bath-isnt-always-such-good-idea
What this means, as stated earlier, is that if you have the short term goals of getting temporarily relief from sore muscles then it’s fine to use icing. If, however, you plan on a quick recovery that will enable you to train even harder, icing is not the way to go. In the same Outside article, Dr. Mirkin says, “There’s no evidence that icing speeds healing or makes you stronger; in fact, it makes you weaker so you can’t do your next hard workout.” https://www.outsideonline.com/1971446/recovery-ice-bath-isnt-always-such-good-idea
Point #3: Improve Well- Being
There is strong evidence that athletes feel better after taking ice baths. So the psychological benefits can not be discounted. As I have stated in previous posts, the well-being of your mind plays a very significant role in your health. “Thinking positive” is not just a silly buzzword made up by self-help gurus to make money for themselves. Emotions can have an impact on the physical. We see it in our language. For example we may say something like, “she was stooped over because of her depression.” Thus, self-esteem, as stated in an earlier post, depends on a person’s personal assessment of his or her worth.
Thus, it makes sense why ice baths are so popular among athletes. Tennis great Andy Murray, to illustrate, has posted a picture of himself clutching the Wimbledon trophy while standing in an ice bath. What then is the verdict ? Well, I would ask what is your goal. Ice baths used correctly may be great as a psychological boost. That said, I would use them sparingly. Or as I would like to say PWC, proceed with caution.
Nikki Kamball really did the sport of running a great service when she brought up the topic of improving next day training ability. The debate on injury recovery and muscle healing can only expand the discussion and help future athletes. That said, there are alternatives to ice baths. One can take cold showers which can make you feel good without the detriment of reducing gains made through your hard training. Also, more work in the injury recovery arena suggests that learning to correctly move the body may be a better way to quick recovery than icing. Thus, Yoga is increasingly becoming an important part of the way runners are keeping healthy. Whether or not you have done ice baths, especially if you haven’t, I hope this information was helpful.
like to hear from the readers so please leave me a comment below to let me know if this post helped you or if you have any questions.
1 Roberts LA, Raastad T, Markworth JF, et al. Post-exercise cold water immersion attenuates acute anabolic signalling and long-term adaptations in muscle to strength training. J Physiol 2015;593(18):4285-301 doi: 10.1113/JP270570[published Online First: Epub Date]|.