Do Ice Baths Actually Work?

2 March 2016, 12:29

We are all familiar with the idea of warming down after doing exercise. If you stop suddenly, sit down and relax, it can leave you stiff and uncomfortable. Warming down gradually gives your muscles time to recover.

However, some athletes believe in using ice baths to help them recover from intense exercise. Marathon runners, rugby players and tennis players all use the method and many believe it really helps them. Stars such as tennis player Andy Murray and runner Paula Radcliffe use them regularly.

However, scientists have performed studies in this area and one study, undertaken at the University of Portsmouth, seemed to indicate the practice doesn’t actually work.

If you exercise regularly, you may well have heard of lactic acid. This builds up in the body after an intense period of exercise. If you have ever experienced that ‘dead legs’ feeling, this is the effect of the lactic acid building up in your legs. You’ll feel tired and you certainly won’t want to do any more exercise. This can be a problem if you happen to be a world-class athlete with another match to play or race to run. And that is why they use ice baths.

However, it looks as though they don’t perhaps work as well as people originally thought – even though something like this has been used for centuries. The idea is that the ice bath takes the blood from your legs, so when you climb out after a short period of time, your body will naturally flood your legs with fresh blood. That blood should be oxygenated, and your muscles will take advantage of that. Thus, the acid build-up should dissipate and the athlete will feel far better than before.

The water in an ice bath sits at around 4 degrees Celsius. That doesn’t sound too bad, but when you think the average temperature for a swimming pool is around 29-30 degrees Celsius, you can see there is a major difference. When you see athletes sitting in ice baths, they often have chunks of ice floating around in them.

Clearly, they wouldn’t take them if they didn’t feel the benefits of doing so. They only spend a few minutes in one, perhaps five minutes or so – 10 minutes at most. However, in reality, very few people outside the sports industry will ever have the chance to use an ice bath – or will want to do so. It looks as though the rest of us will stick with rest and recuperation – and the act of warming down – to make sure we recover from a particularly active period of time.

And remember, warming up to begin with could have an effect on the way you feel after you finish exercising too. Maybe this is more important than an ice bath for most of us.