Ice Baths and Contrast Water Therapy for Recovery

Hurdlers Dai Greene (l) and Jack Green take an ice bath after their training session during the Team GB Track and Field preperation camp at Monte Gordo Stadium on July 25, 2012 in Monte Gordo, Portugal.
Stu Forster/Getty Images

Taking a post-workout plunge in an ice water bath is a common practice among many athletes. Known as cold water immersion or cryotherapy, it is used to recover faster and reduce muscle pain and soreness after intense training sessions or competitions.

In addition to the ice bath, some athletes use contrast water therapy (alternating between cold water and warmer water) to get the same effect. From elite runners to professional rugby and football players, the post-workout ice bath is a common part of a recovery routine.

Like many practices, it's good to question whether this works. See what research says about the pros and cons of cold-water immersion or contrast water therapy after exercise.

The Theory Behind Cold Immersion After Exercise

The theory behind ice baths is related to the fact that intense exercise causes microtrauma or tiny tears in your muscle fibers. This microscopic muscle damage is actually a goal of exercise as it stimulates muscle cell activity and helps repair the damage and strengthen the muscles (muscle hypertrophy). But it is also linked with delayed onset muscle pain and soreness (DOMS), which occurs between 24 and 72 hours after exercise.

The ice bath is believed to:

  1. Constrict blood vessels and flush waste products, like lactic acid, out of the affected tissues
  2. Decrease metabolic activity and slow down physiological processes
  3. Reduce swelling and tissue breakdown

Then, with rewarming, the increased blood flow is thought to speed up circulation, and in turn, improve the healing process.

Although there is no current protocol regarding the ideal time and temperature for cold immersion routines, most athletes or trainers who use them recommend a water temperature between 54 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit (12 to 15 degrees Celsius) and immersion times of five to 10 minutes, and sometimes up to 20 minutes.

Evidence supporting this theory about the benefits, ideal time, and optimal temperature of cold water immersion for exercise recovery is inconclusive.

Scientific Research Shows Pros and Cons of Ice Baths 

Of the studies that have looked at the effects of ice baths, cold water immersion and contrast water therapy on exercise recovery and muscle soreness, most offer inconclusive or contradictory findings.

May Suppress Inflammation But Hinder Muscle Growth

Research suggests that icing muscles immediately after maximal exercise suppresses inflammation, hinders muscle fiber growth, and delays muscle regeneration. A 2015 study determined that cold water immersion may actually disrupt training adaptations, which are key to an effective strength training routine. This would be bad news for athletes who are trying to increase muscle size and strength.

May Reduce Muscle Soreness

A Cochrane review of 17 studies concluded there was some evidence that cold-water immersion reduced delayed onset muscle soreness when it was compared to rest or no intervention. There wasn't enough evidence to conclude whether or not it improved fatigue or recovery. The most effects were seen in studies of running. All of the studies were of low quality and didn't have a standard for adverse effects or follow up with the participants actively.

Contrast water therapy was shown by a review of 13 studies to have some evidence that it was better at reducing exercise-induced muscle soreness recovery than passive recovery or rest, but the difference was minimal. There was no difference in muscle soreness between contrast water therapy, cold water immersion, active recovery, compression, or stretching.

May Offer Pain Relief

Cold water immersion after a single hard workout offers some temporary pain relief and may, in fact, help recovery—at least an athlete's perceived experience of a faster recovery. A 2016 study of jiu-jitsu athletes found that following a workout with cold water immersion may lead to less perceived muscle aches and may help reduce lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) levels.

Alternating cold water and warm water baths (contrast water therapy), may help athletes feel better and offer temporary pain relief.

Active Recovery as Workout Recovery Alternative

While it's clear that more research is needed before a firm conclusion can be reached on cold water therapy, active recovery may be the best alternative for athletes looking to recover quickly. In fact, a 2017 study suggested that ice baths are not more effective than active recovery for reducing inflammation.

A 2016 research article determined that active recovery is generally still accepted as the gold standard, and arguably, the best way to recovery after hard exercise. Lower-impact workouts and stretches are still considered to be the most beneficial cool-down methods.

How to Do Cold Water Therapy

Professional athletes generally have access to special ice water baths in a training room; however, you don't have to be an elite athlete to reap the potential benefits.

Ice Bath

You can use your tub at home to perform cold water therapy. You may want to purchase a large 5 or 10-pound bag of ice, but you can also just use the cold water from your faucet. Simply fill the tub with cold water, and if desired, pour in some of the ice. You may let the water and ice sit for a few minutes to achieve a cold temperature.

Some people measure the temperature before getting in, while others may want to submerge the lower half of their body and adjust the temperature based on feel by adding more cold water, ice, or warm water.

If you are going to try cool or cold water immersion after exercise, don't overdo it. One review of studies found the best routine was 11 to 15 minutes of immersion at a temperature between 52 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit (11 to 15 degrees Celsius. That should be enough time to get the benefit and avoid the risks.

Cold Shower

A few minutes in a cold shower is another way to perform cold water therapy. You may start with warm water and slowly transition to cold water, or you can just stick to a cold water shower. This may be the easiest and most time-efficient method of cold water exposure.

Outdoor Cold Water Swim

Some people enjoy a brief immersion in a body of cold water, such as a lake or ocean. Be mindful that this is a potentially dangerous practice. Cold water can be literally shocking, mentally and physically. Always have an observer with you, should you choose to swim in cold water. Be sure to warm up quickly after to reduce your risk of hypothermia.

Safety

Be mindful that exposure to cold temperatures may result in hypothermia. Always consult with a health care practitioner before practicing cold water therapy and remove yourself from the cold water if you experience numbness, tingling, pain, or discomfort.

Cold water immersion can cause serious cardiac stress and has resulted in heart attacks and death. Exposure to cold water can affect your blood pressure, circulation, and heart rate.

Because cold can make muscles tense and stiff, it's a good idea to fully warm up about 30 to 60 minutes later with a warm shower or a hot drink.

Contrast Water Therapy (Hot-Cold Bath)

If you prefer alternating hot and cold baths, the most common method includes one minute in a cold tub of 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (10 to 15 degrees Celsius) and two minutes a hot tub of 99 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit (37 to 40 degrees Celsius), repeated about three times.

Known as contrast water therapy (or CWT), this method can be used as a recovery method following workouts. A 2013 scientific review explored the benefits of CWT and found it may be beneficial when compared to passive recovery or rest following a strenuous workout.

A Word From Verywell

Whether the science supports the ice bath theory or not, many athletes swear that an ice bath after intense training helps them recover faster, prevent injury, and just feel better. You can give this a try to see if it works for you. But if you decide you don't like it, feel free to skip it the next time.

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12 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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