Do ice baths help or hurt your muscles after exercise?

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After a long hard workout or practice, nothing feels better than submerging your sore body in an ice bath to help soothe the pain. This toe-numbing experience is a technique many athletes use, but the research on the effectiveness of ice baths is mixed. Is it worth the goosebumps?

What causes soreness after working out?

With intense exercise, there’ll be some microtrauma and tears in the muscle fibers affected. This muscle damage will stimulate muscle cell activity and help in the repair and strengthening of the muscle. This is also thought to be the explanation for the delayed onset of pain and soreness, which often presents 12–72 hours after exercise.

What’s the current thinking on the benefit of ice baths?

The ice bath and the compression from the water pressure cause constriction of blood vessels. This has been suggested as a mechanism that helps with the flushing of waste products, such as lactic acid, and reducing fluid accumulation from the affected tissue.

With the cold temperature, there’s a reduction of the metabolism and this can cause a slowing down of the physiological processes. The cold temperature will also reduce swelling and tissue breakdown. Ice water immersion is also said to be able to shift lactic acid.

Upon getting out of ice bath, the tissues and your body will begin to warm up, which causes an increase in circulation, which can assist in moving fluid and a relaxation of muscles in general.

Are ice baths worth it?

Based on the mixed response in the literature, ice baths for recovery done the proper way may help and may be worth trying.

However, ice baths may decrease gains in strength and muscle growth. A 2015 study in the Journal of Physiology showed decreased long-term gains in muscle mass and strength, which is in line with a 2014 study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research which showed decreases in strength using cold immersion. There have been some positive benefits reported in using ice baths after endurance activities.

General guidelines for proper ice bath use:

  • Water should be between 50 and 59 degrees
  • Immersion should be 10-20 minutes

Potential side effects: 

  • Hypothermia
  • Nerve damage
  • Pain

Risk of complications in those with cardiovascular disease or diabetes and neuropathies.

Alternative recovery techniques:

  • Low-intensity activity or cool down
  • Foam rolling
  • Stretching
  • Massage
  • Warm water bath
  • Sleep

Chris Kolba is a physical therapist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.