Ice, ice baby

Ice, ice baby

Endurance athletes put a lot of hours into training for their events. And they want to do everything they can to recover quickly in order to have their bodies ready for the next workout.

So after a 20-mile run or a 70-mile bike ride, many athletes fill the tub with cold water and ice and take an ice bath, in hope of reducing soreness in their muscles and inflammation.

But does it really help?

An article published in the June issue of the journal Sports Medicine by Australian researchers looks at studies done on the effects of cold-water immersion on endurance and resistance training and what they found regarding any benefits of ice baths.

The researchers said cold-water immersion, or an ice bath, is used to minimize fatigue and expedite recovery between training sessions. Although there is no standard prescription for an ice bath, they typically use water colder than 60 degrees, and athletes sit in the ice bath for at least 10 minutes.

The authors said the effects of ice baths on training are not well-researched, and the studies that have been done on the effectiveness of ice baths offer conflicting information.

The authors looked at studies done regarding both endurance training, such as running or cycling, and resistance training, such as weight lifting.

The cold alters cellular responses to exercise in a variety of ways, the authors wrote. Some of the studies show benefits from ice baths to muscle strength and aerobic performance, and reduced muscle damage, muscle soreness, inflammation and perceptions of fatigue. The benefits may come from the cold aiding with the return of fluid from the muscles to the blood and from lowering muscle temperature, which may reduce the effects of injury, inflammation and pain. The ice baths also may allow athletes to train harder and better in their next workouts. But other studies showed no benefit.

One of the main benefits of endurance training is the increase in mitochondria, the organisms in cells that produce energy. The authors reviewed studies that looked at the the effectiveness of an ice bath after a single session of exercise, such as high-intensity running or cycling. The studies show that the ice bath can increase the development of mitochondria in cells.

But regular ice baths have little to no effect on improving the muscles’ response to endurance training, the authors wrote. Studies of athletes over a four- to six-week training program that included regular ice baths show a decline in endurance or a negligible effect on training. One study involving ice baths taken after sprint-interval cycling sessions showed no effect on lactate threshold, maximal oxygen uptake or peak aerobic power. And the increase in mitochondria from an ice bath after a single training session was not found when athletes took regular ice baths after workouts.

For resistance training such as weight lifting, the data from studies show no effect or a negative effect from ice baths on training adaptations such as increases in strength and muscle mass. Some studies show ice baths after a single session of resistance training result in smaller increases in muscle mass, while others show no detrimental effect.

The authors wrote that the studies they reviewed involved a lower frequency and volume of training -- just two to three workouts per week -- than what most athletes perform. More studies need to be done using real-world training scenarios, they said.

So, should you take an ice bath following a long, tough workout? If you feel that it helps you recover faster, go for it. But based on the research done so far, the authors said there is no reason to incorporate ice baths into your training.


Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner and triathlete. You can email her at, or follow her at Her blog is at


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