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Ice baths may injure rather than heal

Mo Farah Ice Bath

Mo Farah enjoying an Ice Bath

Elite athletes are wasting their time by plunging into icy water after intense exercise and may even be putting their health at risk, according to new research into ice baths.

The study by scientists at the University of Portsmouth and published in the European Journal of Sport Science found that cold water immersion is no more and no less effective in helping an athlete recover after sport than light cool-down exercise.

They also warn that the practice of plunging into ice baths, common among elite athletes such as the long distance runner Mo Farah, heptathlete Jessica Ennis and tennis star Andy Murray, might actually do more harm than good.

Dr Jo Corbett, the report’s lead author, said: “Ice baths are frequently used by sportsmen and women to help them recover after exercise but our results show they don’t work. They also pose a number of potentially serious health risks.

“If people using ice baths are receiving no real benefit then they should probably be advised to stop using them.”

Cold water has been thought to reduce inflammation, swelling, muscle spasms and therefore pain, meaning an athlete can perform again at a high level more quickly.

Dr Corbett said: “Cold water immersion has been used since Greek and Roman times. A book from 1715 suggests cold water immersion functions as a ‘diuretic, anti-hypnotic, antidote against opiates and as a treatment for a variety of conditions including sleepy distempers, inflammations, pains, rheumatism and convulsions.’

“The practice has become increasingly popular in recent years thanks largely to high-profile sportsmen and women doing it, but how it helps has never been entirely clear and the reasons given are largely speculative.

“The findings of our study do not support it as the most effective way of speeding up recovery. It might be that previous studies have used as a control group athletes who do nothing to warm down versus those who are immersed in cold water.

“We found athletes who cooled down using light exercise recovered at the same rate as those in cold water.”

For the study, the scientists tested 40 male athletes after 90 minutes of intermittent shuttle running, but no differences were found between those who used cold water therapy and other cool-down methods in terms of athletes’ perception of pain or in their biochemical markers of muscle cell damage.

The research team suggested further studies needed to be done to reconcile conflicting findings from a number of studies and to establish if cold water immersion was ever effective given the potential dangers associated with it.

Source:European Journal of Sport Science


  1. Caroline says

    What are the potential dangers with it?

    • The reported risks include ice burns and bronchospasm (constriction of airways) , which is a greater risk if players are submerged above the waist, while asthma sufferers are particularly vulnerable. Those with certain cardiac conditions are also said to be at risk as a reduced oxygen supply means the heart has to work harder.

      • Michel says

        Talking about “elite athletes” and certain cardiac condition…. How many of elite athletes suffer from cardiac conditions ? Are they then still allowed to train like elites?
        As said before, I guess more studies should be made and like everything else in the today’s world, moderation should be applied.

  2. Danielle Fonseca says

    I understand that there is scientific research to back their claim that is doesn’t work however I feel that those of us athletes know if it helps or not. When I ran I typically never iced but always cooled down (as we had to at all times) and would always feel more sore and more in pain the following day then if I iced my legs.

    maybe it can vary per person?

  3. Are Ice-Baths ever used in conjunction with light cool-down exercises? Is there any research into possible benefits of a combination of the two methods?

  4. Andy says

    I find a couple of miniutes cold shower over my legs till they really feel cold, helps recovery after a hard Training or match play. I tend not to feel sore or stiff the next day, as apposed to a cool down or no cool down.
    I have also used this between competative matches in same day, seems to stop joint inflamation & musel tiredness.

  5. Pedro says

    I would tend to suggest that if an ice bath is imposed on the unaccustomed athlete, detrimental effects such as the cold shock response involving the inspiratory gasp, tachycardia, and hyperventilation may ensue. As a result, habituation sessions should be implemented to slowly acclimatise the athlete to cold water immersion. In my experience there is a divide in the athlete’s perception, and the psychological impact must also be considered. The study identified that “light exercise recovered at the same rate as those in cold water”, as opposed to light exercise was superior. Therefore if the athlete believes in immersion and is accustomed to it, I think this could be of greater benefit.

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