It’s cool to jump into a cold pool. Ice baths, also called cold water immersion, or cold therapy, are popular among professional athletes like Zac Efron, Lady Gaga, Julianne Hough, and many more. Even though there are stars on ice, that doesn’t mean ice baths work. You might wonder if ice baths’ benefits are worth turning yourself into an iceberg.
It turns out that using ice baths to heal is not without its critics. Fact, Gabe Mirkin, the doctor who popularized using ice to help muscles recover after exercise in the 1970s, now says that ice might slow down muscle healing. Most experts use ice baths to reduce muscle soreness so that you can go hard (or harder) the day after a hard workout. So, should you take an ice bath instead of a bubble bath after work? Here’s what experts and trainers have to say about the benefits of ice baths, what you should and shouldn’t do in a cold tub, and more.
Benefits Of Ice Baths
Keep in mind that science isn’t sure if ice baths are good for you or not.
1. You might feel the pain go away right away
Putting ice on your skin will numb, but that’s not the only way an ice bath can help you feel better. “Researchers think that your ability to feel pain decreases as nerve conduction speed slows,” says Malek. In a nutshell, the body’s system to tell you it hurts slows down.
2. The swelling may go down as well
“Vasoconstriction, which is when your blood vessels get smaller in response to the cold, could also cause less blood flow in a certain area,” says Malek. So, the extra blood flow that could cause muscles to swell after a challenging workout is stopped in its tracks.
3. You might do better the next time you work out.
What do people want most from ice baths? They can help athletes train or perform at high levels on back-to-back days. Malek says ice baths may help reduce DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness) and RPE (rate of perceived exertion), especially in the first 24 hours after exercise. “This makes it easier for the athlete to get back to training at the same level as before.”
If you do a hard workout and then do it again the next day, taking an ice bath can help keep your muscles from getting too swollen and full of waste, which can hurt your performance. So, Gaga might have done it while on tour.
4. You may feel less anxious.
Even though no studies directly link ice baths to less stress, anyone who has used a cooling cream on a rash or splashed cold water on their face in the morning knows how good it feels. “Because an ice bath relieves pain right away, some say it makes them feel happier or more alert,” says Malek. She also says that the extreme temperatures force you to change how you breathe, making it more profound and more controlled. This may also help reduce stress.
5. It makes you feel cool quickly.
It might seem like an obvious benefit, but it’s still important to point out. A 2015 review found that getting into cold water helped people cool down twice as fast as other methods when they were too hot.
Possible Risks of Ice Baths
Before you cannonball into a tub of ice cubes, you should probably think about some things that could go wrong.
1. They can be risky.
Would it be fun to hang out in cold water like those who survived a shipwreck? “If it’s not done right, a person can get hypothermia and frostbite,” says Brandon Nicholas, CPT. Also, because ice baths can slow your heart rate, they are probably unsuitable for people with heart problems.
2. Taking an ice bath doesn’t help you get better
A 2019 study in the Journal of Physiology found that taking an ice bath after a workout might slow down muscle repair and growth. This is a big problem for people who want to build muscle or get fitter. Researchers found that people who took ice baths after working out had lower levels of a protein that helps muscles grow and higher levels of a protein that allows forces to break down than those who stayed at room temperature while recovering.
3. The benefits might be nothing more than the placebo effect.
Like the relationship I’ve made up with another regular at the coffee shop where I get my morning coffee, the benefits of ice baths may be, well, made up. Yes, a study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise says that the positive effects of ice baths are at least partly due to the placebo effect. There’s nothing wrong with the placebo effect, but it’s good to know.
How to tell if ice baths are good for you
If taking an ice bath can help you feel less stressed and relieve aches and pains, it’s easy to see why celebrities love them (even if it is just a placebo effect). But it’s up to you to decide if it’s worth the trouble of filling a tub with ice water and getting yourself in.
“It’s hard to say if ice baths help because the evidence is so mixed,” says Malek. “Because ice baths are so cold, they take a few minutes to get into. This makes me wonder if taking an ice bath is just a waste of time and if there aren’t better ways to heal.
Time For Ice Baths
Willing to dive into the water as cold as the Titanic? There is a right way to stay safe to take an ice bath. Here are some tips from experts to follow before you empty the freezer:
- Start by filling your tub with one bucket of water for every three buckets of ice. This means you should use one bucket of water for every three buckets of ice.
- When your tub is ready, get in slowly. “Start by slowly putting your legs in the water so you can get used to the cold,” he says.
- Shorten the first time you dive. At first, you may only soak for 30 seconds. Even as you get used to the cold, you should never spend more than 15 minutes in an ice bath.