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Why Athletes Use Ice Baths–And Why You Shouldn’t

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:

http://www.runnersworld.com/health/the-benefits-of-ice-baths-for-runners

 

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.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16372177

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25760154

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 [1] 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.

Conclusion

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.

Reference

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]|.

8 thoughts on “Why Athletes Use Ice Baths–And Why You Shouldn’t

  1. Hello,

    I found your article interesting about athletes using ice baths, I have heard of athletes using ice baths but never understood why.

    I really do not think this would be healthy for anyone to do even athletes, I have experienced even using an ice pack bothers my body in some ways like a kind of shock treatment and the chills are even worse.

    What would you use for an alternate to ice baths if you were an athlete?

    1. Hi Jeffrey,

      I’m so glad to hear from you again. You always have some useful insights to share. I have to say that I completely agree with you that ice baths are not the best way for an athlete to manage pain and recovery. I wrote the post because I believe that the opposite is true –ice baths I think prolong recovery.

      I think an alternative to icing muscles is learning to move them correctly. So, I think yoga and acupuncture, under the right supervision, are great alternatives to ice baths.

      Take care Jeffrey, and feel free to contact me any time should you have more questions.

      Thabo

  2. Ice baths seem pretty useful but How can one stay in for long in the winter season, I mean it is really cold and no one would like to go for an ice bath during that season so what are the alternatives to it.
    This seems like something seasonal and not as pleasant as it might sound. Ice baths can be painful if the water is too cold? What are your thoughts?

    1. Hi Shrey,

      I think while ice baths may prove useful to some elite runners, for most people it’s not a good idea. studies have shown that ice baths actually reduce most of the gains of going to the gym. 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.

      Now, ice baths have shown to give a psychological boost. I think a cold shower can make you feel good without the detriment of reducing gains made through your hard training.

      But Shrey, I honestly think one doesn’t have to go through all that trouble. I’m a big believer that humans were meant to move. You just function better when you move. Thus, learning to move your body correctly is far healthier than dumping your body in ice water. I think Yoga would be a far better alternative.

      Now if you have something like heel pain, Plantar Fasciitis, than using icing for a limited time will help decrease the pain. In fact, that’s the subject of a post I’m working on. Keep an eye for it. Meanwhile, feel free to contact me should you have anymore questions.

  3. This is really an informative post. I actually do have a few of my friend that engage in this ice bath of a thing and I always wonder why they do it. Just like you, I cant see the reason they should go that way when there are lots of better ways to get the muscles relaxed and recover fast.
    I wouldn’t dare dip my legs in a chill water not to talk of an icy one. I would rather get on the mat for a good Yoga session.

    1. Hi Alfie,

      Elite athletes like ultra runner Nikki Kamball believe that ice abates are one of the most effective ways to offset the damage done by a marathon run.As I told Shrey, I believe, however, that the overwhelming evidence is that ice baths do more damage than good in helping a person recover from muscle injury. Studies have been done on this very subject.
      It’s worth repeating that the evidence show that ice baths decreased gains in muscle mass and strength and blunted key proteins responsible for muscle growth. This means, as I said before, 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—which is what the majority of people do. So for most of us, ice baths are a very bad idea if we want fast recovery from injury.

  4. I agree with you that ice baths are not the best way to ensure muscle recovery. It seems to me that they may just do the opposite. They may instead extend the period needed for recovery. I think there are far batter ways to recover from injury associated with running. One can try low impact sports like swimming. Great post.

    1. Hi Philip,

      Athletes who promote the use of ice baths to speed up muscle recovery like to point out how ice baths decrease inflammation and fight muscle soreness. That said, here is something to consider.

      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 reducing inflammation, ice baths may prolong the recovery process. So ice baths may indeed extend the period needed for recovery. You make an excellent point about using low impact sports as part of the recovery routine.

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