Why Do Athletes Take Ice Baths? The Surprising Benefits of Being Really Cold
If you’re like me, ice generally belongs in two places:
- A cocktail
- Another cocktail
But you’ve probably heard that many athletes swear by using ice baths after a grueling workout.
While professional athletes have been taking them for decades, the practice of dropping one’s core temperature really caught fire back in 2018 when author Scott Carney introduced the world to a Dutchman named Wim Hoff who really has a fondness for the cold.
In What Doesn’t Kill Us, Carney approached the topic as a skeptic only to become a convert of Hof’s love for all things freezing.
Still, the history of ice baths goes back at least as far as 400 BC when the Greek physician Hippocrates documented their supposed benefits. Athletes have been taking them ever since to some degree (see what I did there?) or another.
That said, athletes have always done crazy things (Dennis Rodman, anyone?). So, I was curious to find out if ice baths actually work.
Well, that’s one way to do it.
The 5 Benefits of Ice Baths
Ask “What does an ice bath do?” and you’ll likely receive a slew of different answers.
So, let’s first go through the most common benefits you’ll hear about. Then, I’ll explore the science behind them. I wouldn’t recommend taking the plunge until we get to that section.
For now, the “benefits.”
1. Easing and Soothing Aching Muscles
This first one should come as no surprise. Whether you bumped your head, banged your knee, or your muscles are aching because you pushed yourself harder than usual, it’s common knowledge that applying ice to where it hurts is a pretty reliable way to make the pain go away.
Ergo, the reasoning holds that if you apply ice to your entire body by, say, submerging yourself in a bath that’s full of it, all your aches and pains – and then some – will take the hint.
2. Keeping Yourself Cool When Working Out in Hot Temperatures
Let’s quickly knock another easy one off the list. If you prefer your athletic activities in hot or humid climates, nothing will feel better than jumping in an ice bath when it’s over.
Alright, that’s a bit of a stretch.
The ice bath is still going to sting you in a way only very cold temperatures can, but once your body acclimates, a nice sense of calm should wash over you.
3. Reducing Inflammation
Similarly, inflammation struggles to accrue when the temperature surrounding it drops significantly. The cold forces your blood vessels to constrict. When you get out of the ice bath, they open back up (or “dilate” if you want to be fancy), which flushes away metabolic waste and reduces inflammation.
This is important for athletes because inflammation is the enemy of recovery. Take an ice bath and you may find that recovering is easier – as is your next workout.
4. Boosting Your Central Nervous System
Cold temperatures may also work to stimulate your body’s sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, recovery process, and overall stress response.
In short, ice baths may actually boost your mood and help you sleep better. The latter is especially important for athletes who rely on a good night’s sleep to hit training hard the following day.
5. Fire Up Your Vagus Nerve
Your vagus – or pneumogastric – nerve is the 10th cranial nerve, which lines the bottom of your brain. This is a particularly important one because the vagus nerve regulates your heart and respiratory rates.
Stimulate the vagus nerve regularly and you may be training these two important functions to help you better deal with stress. This can help you in a number of different areas, but if you love hard workouts, training your body to deal with the stress involved will definitely make you a better athlete.
What the Science Says About Ice Baths
Alright, now that we’re better acquainted with the most common reasons athletes voluntarily subject themselves to the bitter cold, it’s time for the most important question in this article:
“Do ice baths actually work?”
In short, yes.
Let’s look at the studies that back this up.
First, as I mentioned above, it should come as no surprise that submerging yourself in a frigid bath can act as a performance-enhancer before taking on an outdoor run in hot and humid conditions. This was the finding of a 2012 study on “Pre-cooling for endurance exercise performance in the heat” – although it noted that “Mechanisms behind effective precooling remain uncertain”, so you may need to do some experimenting of your own for best results.
Second, there’s evidence that taking an ice bath after a workout can help with recovery, too.
In 2018, a meta-analysis of 99 recovery methods looked at ice baths, as well as other popular options like massages, compression garments, stretching, electrostimulation, and more.
It concluded that massage and cold exposure (e.g., ice baths) were the two best ways to recover from inflammation. Baths were also found to be effective at fighting fatigue and reducing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). If your workouts leave your muscles aching or tired for days, try jumping in a really cold bath.
Another study on post-exercise ice baths even found that:
“…a 15min period of cold water immersion applied between repeated exhaustive exercise bouts significantly reduces intestinal temperature and enhances post-immersion running performance in normothermic conditions.”
So, if you really wanted to push your performance, fill up an ice bath near your local track and take some 15-minute submersions to keep yourself going for hours.
In terms of your central nervous system, ice baths do again appear effective making them a great choice for stimulating recovery long after your workout is over.
As far as the popular claim goes that taking an ice bath can help stimulate the vagus nerve, it seems the science is still out on that one.
A study on the “Effects of Cold Stimulation on Cardiac-Vagal Activation in Healthy Participant” did confirm that applying cold temperatures to the back of one’s neck will “result in higher heart rate variability and lower heart rate.”
However, it’s just one study and the researchers also concluded that more work was necessary to understand the result further.
Do Ice Baths Impair Muscle Growth?
With all that said, I want to talk about a potential drawback of ice baths: that they may actually be counterproductive if your goal is muscle growth.
That was the finding of a recent study titled, “Postexercise cooling impairs muscle protein synthesis rates in recreational athletes.”
In the study, 21 male participants took part in a two-week training program that involved resistance exercise sessions. They capped off each session by submerging one leg in water that was at 0°C and the other leg in water that was at 30°C.
After two weeks, the muscles that were placed in the 30°C water showed signs of absorbing greater amounts of protein from the participants’ diets. Myofibrillar protein synthesis was also higher in the legs dipped in warmer water.
The study concluded that:
“…CWI [cold water immersion] during recovery from resistance‐type exercise lowers the capacity of the muscle to take up and direct dietary protein‐derived amino acids towards de novo myofibrillar protein accretion in healthy, recreationally active males. In addition, when applied consistently CWI during recovery from resistance‐type exercise lowers myofibrillar protein synthesis rates during more prolonged resistance‐type exercise training and, as such, may attenuate skeletal muscle conditioning.”
Keep in mind this is just one study, but if the findings bear out, cold water may still be a good choice for helping to recover from a grueling work out.
However, if your goal is to build muscle, pay close attention to your results when taking ice baths to see if the cold temperatures seem to be hurting your progress more than helping.
Why Ice Baths Have Become Popular with Runners
Though athletes from all kinds of different sports have long relied on ice baths to heal their aches and aid in recovery, runners have always been chief among them.
Obviously, long-distance running is a grueling sport, one that is usually done outdoors and often in punishing temperatures. After that kind of challenge, it’s no wonder that jumping in an ice bath seems like a welcomed reprieve.
As I just covered, ice baths are also great for handling the kind of muscle soreness that this kind of running is likely to trigger.
Of course, many runners like to get a jump on things by using ice baths to drop their body temperatures before hitting the trail in extreme heat.
One major caveat. If you're someone who loves running in the cold, then I wouldn't recommend taking an ice bath before or after. This is probably (hopefully?) obvious advice, but plenty of athletes love extreme protocols, so I figured better safe than sorry.
Using Ice Baths for Your Feet
If the thought of submerging yourself in an ice bath gets your heart pumping with anxiety instead of excitement, try starting with just your feet after a nice long run.
This is the protocol many runners follow who don’t want to take the full plunge.
All you need is a simple foot-soaking basin like this one:
While the results won’t be as effective as immersing your entire body in ice water, this is definitely a more convenient method and will still help to drop your temperature and help keep inflammation down in your feet.
Ice Baths or Heat Therapy?
By now, you’re probably sold on the benefits of ice baths for athletes.
But what if I told you that taking a nice, warm dip was actually better?
Well, I’d be lying.
As much as heat can help with relaxing muscles and improving circulation, ice baths are clearly better for all the reasons we’ve already covered – especially recovery.
So, while many athletes insist they’d be better off in a hot tub – and who can blame them? – the truth is that greater benefits are waiting for you in an ice bath.
How to Take an Ice Bath for Beginners
Alright, who’s ready for an ice bath?
While the premise probably seems fairly self-explanatory (ice + bath = ice bath), there’s slightly more to it than that.
“It’s not so bad!”
How Cold Should an Ice Bath Be?
In 2016, a meta-analysis of ice bath studies found that athletes received the best results when the water temperature was between 50 – 59 °F or 10 – 15 °C.
When taking your first ice bath, feel free to start with the upper limit of the above spectrum or even go a bit warmer until you get used to the temperature. That range is for optimal results. You’ll still experience them in the 60s and you can always get closer to 50 °F as you grow accustomed to it.
Wear some layers if you want, too. Many athletes have begun by wearing sweat suits until they get acclimated to the cold.
How Long Should You Sit in an Ice Bath For?
More good news!
That same meta-analysis found that you only need to sit in that chilly water for between 10 and 15 minutes to receive maximum benefits.
Sit so that the water is above your waist. As you get more comfortable, you can try to sink lower until the water is up to your chest, but that’s not necessary to begin seeing benefits.
How Much Ice to Use for Your Ice Bath
This all depends on the temperature of the water before you start adding the ice and, to some extent, the temperature wherever you decide to submerge. It also depends on the size of your container as that will decide how much water you use, too.
Sufficed to say, you’ll want a thermometer for this.
For most people, 2 to 3 bags of ice weighing 6 pounds apiece should be enough, but buy a couple extra just in case.
Are Ice Baths Dangerous?
By all means, speak to a physician before taking your first ice bath, especially if you suffer from cardiac conditions.
As I mentioned earlier, the cold temperatures will constrict your blood vessels, which means less blood flowing to your extremities. Those constricted blood vessels will also make it harder for your heart to pump blood, which, you know, is fairly important.
If your heart already struggles with that, you probably want to avoid ice baths – at least until you speak with your physician.
Obviously, there’s the risk of hypothermia, too. Keep the water warmer than 50 °F, but again, it’s best to start out a lot warmer than that and drop the temperature over multiple baths as you get more and more comfortable.
Finally, because ice baths will also make your muscles contract, there’s the risk that they could actually make stiff muscles even stiffer. If you find this is your experience, congratulations, you now have the perfect excuse to no longer take ice baths (second only to “I have cardiac issues”).
I’ll say this one more time. Even if you’re in perfect health, start slow with ice baths.
Ready to Take the Plunge?
To be honest, I was really hoping to discover that proponents of ice baths were full of hot air.
Instead, I have to admit that it seems as though there is plenty of science behind the idea that taking an ice bath after your workouts can have profoundly positive effects.
Will I be making them a regular part of my week?
No, probably not.
But if you’re looking for a relatively affordable way to speed up your recovery or just need a new topic of conversation around the water cooler, I definitely recommend taking the plunge into an ice bath.