7 Mar 2017

Ice baths: a ‘bone-chilling waste of time’

From Nine To Noon, 10:10 am on 7 March 2017

A new study has thrown cold water on the use of ice baths for muscle recovery, finding they are a complete waste of time.

After a heavy training session or a bruising match, athletes from a range of sporting codes have used ice baths to help muscle recovery.

But a new study by an international team, which includes scientists from the University of Auckland's Liggins Institute, shows that immersion in cold water does not reduce inflammation.

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Photo: YOUTUBE / All Blacks

David Cameron-Smith is a professor of nutrition at the Liggins Institute and he says they are a bone-chilling waste of time.

He told RNZ’s Kathryn Ryan ice baths are a classic example of teams convincing themselves that without pain, there is no gain.

“People immerse themselves in these ice baths and it’s a terrifying cold experience. It is genuinely painful for the first few minutes.

“But of course the numbness wears away and then you’ve got that bonding bravado that accompanies that kind of activity.”

Professor Cameron-Smith says the original theory around ice baths was that they would cool muscles to reduce blood flow and the level of inflammation to allow the muscle to work quickly to recover in a slow environment.

But the research found that process of inflammation is very important in speeding up the process of repair.

“What we demonstrated was that ice baths slow down this process of recovery, and actually impair the ability of athletes to regenerate that tissue and get back out playing at their optimum level.”

“They absolutely make things worse.”

Professor Cameron-Smith says their findings have been proven in three separate studies.

“This is not research for the faint hearted.

“We got some hardy volunteers to participate in intense exercise, and then we took small pieces of muscle from their thigh, and so we looked at that process of repair right down in the muscle.

The research found there was, in fact, no reduction in the muscle inflammation.

One study found that a control group was able to cycle for ten minutes, while the others were given an ice bath.

“The sad news is that the muscle baths reduced the muscle gain, that’s the size of muscle, but importantly they were weaker.”

He says the research doesn’t have a large impact on elite athletes – other than ice baths being a waste of time – as elite athletes have already made the maximal gains in terms of their strength.

Research has found the most important thing for recovery after an intense bout of exercise is sleep.

“A lot of elite athletes that are performing to quite late at night… it’s extremely hard for them to switch off. And so ice baths are a way of switching off.”

But for those who injure their muscles while exercising, for example muscle tears or contusions, rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE) are vital.

“If you continue when you’re got that muscle damage, you’ll just simply make it worse.”

Professor Cameron-Smith says optimal recovery from intense exercise does involve some degree of gentle recovery.

“A warm down is gentle repetitive movement of that muscle for a period of time, one would suggest about 30 minutes.

“So even if you’ve gone for a weekend warrior run, and so you’ve been out for the best part of an hour, you do need to walk around for at least 30 minutes.”