Ice baths and cold water baths (cyrotherapy) are commonly seen in sports medicine. From experience, ice baths are cold…obviously, but after a few minutes you are able to relax. At the Beijing Olympics ice baths were frequently used with swimmers, but do ice baths really work and how do they work? Ice baths are proposed to help the athlete recover faster, reduce pain/soreness, and prevent injuries, but what does the literature indicate.
Proposed Method to Madness
During a bout of exercise muscle undergoes microtrauma (tiny muscular tears). This damage promotes muscle resynthesis to become stronger and make bigger muscles (hypertrophy). Cyrotherapy is believed to:
Sting, burn and freeze your ass
Constrict blood vessels to flush waste products
Decrease metabolic activity
Reduce swelling and tissue breakdown
Following an ice bath (5-10 minutes at 12-15 degrees Celsius) the athlete is supposed to re-warm up to accelerate circulation to enhance recovery. Cold water baths are proposed to cause the same physiological changes, but the temperature is typically warmer (24 degree Celsius).
Do Ice Baths Work
Research is split on the effectiveness of ice baths and cold water immersion. One study took 10 national level swimmers and had them complete a 100-m sprint. Five minutes following this maximal effort, the swimmers sat in a cold water bath to their shoulders for five minutes at a temperature 14-15 degree Celsius. Prior to the race the swimmers re-warmed up and completed another 100-m sprint within 30 minutes of the first race. This short rest period mimicked the conditions every swimmer has experienced. The researchers found the swimmers who performed the cold water immersion between races performed worse than swimmers who did not perform cold water immersions between races. Heart rates in the swimmers following the cold water immersion did not rise as high as swimmers who did not enjoy a cold dip in freezing water. This lack of heart rate elevation was the researcher’s hypothesis on the decreased time, indicating the swimmers could not achieve as high cardiac output. Cardiac output determines the volume of blood being pumped by the heart each minute and is calculated by multiplying heart rate by stroke volume (volume of blood being pumped with each beat). Athletes are able to raise their cardiac output 6-7 times higher than non-athletes giving them the blood circulation and oxygen needed to perform optimally.
Take Home Points
Even though this study did not find a benefit with the cold water immersion, it does not mean it is a total hunk of junk. The researchers poorly describe the re-warmup after the cold water immersion. An adequate warm-up after the cold water immersion is essential. The temperature of the water used in this study may have been too cold, other researchers suggest using water temperatures at 24 degree Celsius. Many swimmers use cyrotherapy after a day of competition, not in between races. One study indicates improved cycling time, but these cyclist performed long duration cycling which is not closely related to swim meet conditions (more like swim practice). This indicates cold water immersion may increase recovery following practice compared to passive recovery (I don’t know why they didn’t look at active recovery!) Lastly, try it for yourselves, this study looked at ten athletes who can be different from your swimmers, use this information to get some guidelines of what is expected to work, but you never know until you try it!
Have you ever tried cold water immersion in between races? Did it work?
Vaile, J.; Halson, S.; Gill, N.; Dawson, B., Effect of Hydrotherapy on Recovery from Fatigue. Int'l J. Sports Medicine, July 2008.
Kylie Louise Sellwood, et al. Ice-water immersion and delayed-onset muscle soreness: a randomized controlled trial Br. J. Sports Med., Jun 2007.
Parouty J, Al Haddad H, Quod M, Lepr tre P, Ahmaidi S, Buchheit M. Effect of cold water immersion on 100-m sprint performance in well-trained swimmers. Eur J Appl Physiol. Feb 2010