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Ice Bath Benefits: What the Research Says

If done right, taking an ice bath may be helpful to those who are active or participate in sports. But it’s important to understand the technique before trying it out.

It’s not uncommon to see athletes, fitness enthusiasts, and weekend warriors jumping into an ice bath after physical activity.

Also called cold water immersion (CWI) or cryotherapy, the practice of taking a 10 to 15 minute dip in very cold water (50-59°F) after an intense exercise session or competition is believed to help reduce muscle pain and soreness.

The practice of using ice baths to relieve sore muscles goes back decades. But a 2017 studyTrusted Sourcemay throw a wrench in that belief.

The recent study suggests that the previous ideas about ice bath benefits for athletes is flawed, and that there’s no benefit to sore muscles.

While the study does argue that an active recovery — such as 10 minutes of low-intensity exercise on a stationary bike — is just as good for recovery as CWI, experts in the field still believe in using ice baths.

Dr. A. Brion Gardner, an orthopedic surgeon with The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics, says there are still benefits to ice baths.

“The study does not prove 100 percent that there are no benefits to ice baths,” he says. “It suggests that the previously believed benefits of faster recovery, reduction of muscle and tissue damage, and improved function aren’t necessarily true.”

And Dr. Thanu Jey, the clinic director at Yorkville Sports Medicine Clinic, agrees.

“There will always be research that will support both sides of this debate,” he says. “Although much of the research is inconclusive, I side with current best management of professional athletes who regularly use ice baths.”

Study limitations

One important thing to note with this study is the sample size and age.

The study consisted of 9 young men between the ages of 19 and 24 who were doing resistance training two to three days a week. More research and larger studies are necessary to debunk the benefits of ice baths.

If you’re considering trying an ice bath, you might be wondering what the potential benefits are, and if it’s worth subjecting your body to the extreme cold.

The good news is there are some potential benefits of using an ice bath, especially for people who work out or are competitive athletes.

1. Eases sore and aching muscles

According to Gardner, the greatest benefit of ice baths, most likely, is that they simply make the body feel good.

“After an intense workout, the cold immersion can be a relief to sore, burning muscles,” he explains.

2. Helps your central nervous system

Gardner says an ice bath can also help your central nervous system by aiding in sleep, and consequently, making you feel better from having less fatigue.

Plus, he says it can help improve reaction time and explosiveness in future workouts.

3. Limits the inflammatory response

The theory, says Jey, is that decreasing the local temperature after exercise helps limit inflammatory response, decreasing the amount of inflammation and helping you recover faster.

4. Decreases the effect of heat and humidity

Taking an ice bath may decrease the effect of heat and humidity.

“An ice bath prior to a long race in conditions where there is an increase in temperature or humidity can lower core body temperature a few degrees which can lead to improved performance,” explains Gardner.

5. Trains your vagus nerve

One of the main benefits of an ice bath says certified strength and conditioning specialist Aurimas Juodka, CSCS, CPT, is being able to train your vagus nerve.

“The vagus nerve is linked with the parasympathetic nervous system, and training it can help you face stressful situations more adequately,” he explains.