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Do Ice Baths Really Improve Muscle Recovery? Read this before trying it

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“Cold water immersions”, more commonly known as “ice baths” are commonly used by professional athletes after sporting events.

Plunge into “ice” water (usually around 10 ° C) for 5-10 minutes is believed to improve muscle recovery and improve future athletic performance, but what is the science behind these claims?

We asked 5 exercise physiology experts: Do Post-Exercise Ice Baths Improve Performance? Here is what they said.

What happens to muscles when they are cold?

Many people use ice packs or a bag of frozen peas at home to reduce pain and swelling if they have stretched a muscle.

Johanna Lanner, expert in muscle physiology at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, Explain how it works :

“Cooling i) reduces the transmission of nerve impulses and thus reduces the level of pain perception and ii) induces constriction of blood vessels in peripheral tissues (eg muscles), resulting in reduced pain. diffusing fluids which may help reduce acute exercise-induced inflammation. “

Llion Roberts, exercise physiology expert at Griffith University in Australia, said: “Immersion in cold water is also known to help restore heart rate variability, the variation of the millisecond periods between successive heartbeats. “

Interestingly, ice baths can influence our minds as well as our muscles. James Broatch, an expert in exercise physiology from the University of Victoria in Australia, undertook a research study who compared “The effects of an ice bath with a placebo condition that the participants were led to believe were as effective as an ice bath.”

In the placebo condition, the participants took a hot bath with what they thought was a special “recovery oil”, but which was in fact just a skin cleanser.

Brooch said “Participants in the ice bath and placebo conditions rated their belief in the benefits of the recovery condition assigned to them in the same way, which in turn resulted in a similar recovery of strength. leg extension for 48 hours after exercise. ”

What effect do ice baths have on muscle recovery after exercise?

Lanner said that ice baths are effective in “reducing the symptoms of exercise-induced delayed onset muscle pain, that is, pain and stiffness experienced in muscles for several hours to several days (usually 24 at 72 hours) after unusual or strenuous exercise ”.

For this reason, ice baths are commonly used for muscle recovery after sports competitions.

What effect do ice baths have on physical performance?

As ice baths help muscles recover, it may follow that they can improve athletic performance. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple – Hakan Westerblad, an expert in cellular muscle physiology at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, said “Scientific studies show varying results regarding the effect of post-exercise ice baths on subsequent performance, with results ranging from minor positive effects, through no effects, to negative effects.”

One of the problems with measuring the effect of ice baths on physical performance is that there are many different types of exercise, such as endurance or strength training.

Roberts said “Surprisingly enough, after strength training, immersion in cold water can actually hinder the benefits of the exercise.”

Him and his colleagues “found significant reductions and / or weakening of desired strength training outcomes, such as increased strength and muscle mass, and cellular improvements in muscle. This was likely due to the fact that cold water negatively interfered with the natural proteins and cellular responses that occur in the muscle after each weight training session. “

The effects on endurance training can be very different. Christopher Mawhinney, sports science expert from Mahidol University in Thailand, said: “Interestingly, there is evidence to suggest that exercising muscle cooling increases the cellular signal that activates mitochondrial biogenesis.”

Mitochondrial biogenesis It is when cells increase their number of mitochondria, which are structures that release energy. One of the positive effects of endurance training is mitochondrial biogenesis, so ice baths could help amplify this benefit.

The effects of ice baths on physical performance differ depending on the type of exercise involved.

Rogers abstract: “Cold water immersion after strength training should be undertaken with caution or avoided. Its use following one-off circumstances such as major sporting events or endurance exercises is recommended, and may even provide additional benefits for subsequent performance of endurance exercises. “

Bottom Line: Don’t use ice baths to improve your strength training, but they could be helpful for endurance training.

Article based on 5 expert answers to this question: Do Post-Exercise Ice Baths Improve Performance?

This expert response was published in partnership with an independent fact-checking platform Metafact.io. Subscribe to their weekly newsletter here.


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