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.