Originally Published: on Mar. 31, 2021 | Goodhousekeeping.com | By ZEE KRSTIC
Athletes are likely all too familiar with the daunting relief of an ice bath, which is often prescribed by trainers after a strained physical injury that would otherwise sideline them. But many fitness enthusiasts may not realize that anyone can reap benefits from an ice bath routine outside of a sports clinic. Believe it or not, ice baths — also referred to as cold water immersion (CWI) by medical pros — have been around for hundreds of years, and have long been used for holistic wellness, not just sprained joints or fatigued muscles. “Ice baths have been touted to cure many different health problems,” says Michael J. Nieto, MD, a sports medicine doctor at the Hoag Orthopedic Institute in California.
A traditional ice bath calls for someone to be submerged in icy water anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes, ranging with experience; the water isn’t actually freezing, however. A 2010 journal review establishes that the best temperature for ice baths is between 50℉ and 59℉, which will certainly feel like ice… without actually causing further damage to your body. Individuals often become more accustomed to the chill of an ice bath over time, and factoring one into your regular routine can provide benefits.
How do ice baths impact your body and recovery?
Primarily, ice baths impact inflammation by working on the way that your blood flows, especially after an injury. Your blood vessels will begin to contract almost immediately when you submerge yourself in the cold water, and afterward, vessels will gradually dilate when you get out. Often, the process helps to regulate other fluids in your body beyond the blood itself, as the lymphatic system is also better regulated in this process. All in all, the closing and opening of your blood vessels may reduce the impact of a hard workout or strenuous activity on your body on a regular basis, Dr. Nieto explains.
“It’s been theorized that cold water decreases inflammation within the skeletal muscle, leading to quicker recovery in athletes,” Dr. Nieto adds. Certain research suggests CWI treatments may provide similar benefits in line with cool-down exercises like walking or yoga, known as active recovery; a 2020 Journal of Sports Sciencesstudy suggests ice baths provide more benefits than simple stretching, for example. “It has been shown that cold therapy or ice compression can result in decreased edema [swelling] and inflammation following an injury.”
Most often, taking an ice bath soon after sustaining an injury may save you from a longer recovery period and plenty of aches and pains, Dr. Nieto says. “Short-term pain relief and range of motion improvement are often seen early on.” That’s likely the best time to consider when you should take an ice bath. Research isn’t as clear on long-term improvements over time (and often doesn’t paint CWI as more effective than other recovery methods), but there are other immediate benefits to ice baths that you may consider.
Other ways that ice baths may benefit your health:
Inflammation from injuries doesn’t always result from a mishap at the gym or an accident on the field — plenty of inflammation can stem from lifestyle choices or recent medical procedures. Dr. Nieto says rapid cooling has been used in postoperative patients to improve outcomes after surgeries; often, there are improvements in pain management, the overall range of motion, and bodily function in those who have undergone a knee replacement, for example.
There is a lack of research on how regular ice baths may benefit chronic inflammation stemming from a condition that isn’t related to exercise. A 2019 article published by Texas A&M University postulates that more data needs to be calculated on the effect of CWI on non-athletes, but that ice baths may impact cardiovascular health in a similar fashion to things like walking (or other active recovery activities). A bath could potentially trigger an increased heart rate and improved blood flow: “The increase in heart rate would not be the goal, but in comparison to active recovery, similar physiological processes occur without any additional energy expenditure,” researchers wrote.
Maybe most impressively, however, is the mental health benefit that many experts are noticing in patients who turn to ice baths regularly. Dr. Nieto shares that many of his patients begin their day with an ice bath, a way to jumpstart their senses. While research is conflicted on the topic, a limited 2008 study found that those with chronic anxiety were able to relieve symptoms in a few weeks’ time by exposing themselves to cold water daily. Proponents of ice baths say that cold water provides alertness that you wouldn’t be able to find in a cup of coffee, for example — while ice baths are not a cure-all for everything weighing on your brain, it is a highly stimulating way to get your day off to a good start.
Can ice baths improve workouts?
Ice baths won’t magically make you run faster or stay on the elliptical longer the next day, to be clear. But an ice bath may help you feel better prepared, especially if you do it on a regular basis, to pull off the same amount of physical activity in the following days. Primarily, an ice bath reduces any effect of inflammation on your muscles or joints, particularly if you’ve suffered an injury. Limited research suggests that an ice bath may only boost your physical efforts if the weather outside is hot and humid; in the summer, for example, taking an ice bath before a hard workout may potentially reduce the effects of humidity and heat on your overall stamina, per a 2012 study.
Interestingly, there is also a bit of research that suggests that ice baths could potentially hamper progress towards muscle growth. A review in the Journal of Physiology cited study data that suggests that men who took ice baths after workouts gained less muscle strength over time; researchers cited evidence that suggests that key proteins in muscles weren’t activated after strength exercises due to the ice bath, which may or may not be caused by the bath’s anti-inflammatory effects. In any case, if you’re trying to bulk up, feeling the burn of a lifting session may be necessary in order to promote muscle growth over time.
What’s the best way to take an ice bath?
It’s important to note that anyone with pre-existing medical conditions — particularly cardiovascular or heart health issues as well as diabetes — should speak with their healthcare provider before a trial of ice baths at home. The constriction of blood vessels may prove to be an issue for you, Dr. Nieto explains. You should avoid pouring ice baths at home alone, as someone should be available to assist you in case of emergency (which is why ice baths are often conducted in a clinical setting).
If you want to dip your toe into the waters of an ice bath at home, follow these directions to stay safe and avoid additional health issues. If your water is too cold, hypothermia can set in within 15 minutes for water below 32℉. It’s best to start gradually lowering the temperature of an ice bath; it can be harder to warm a bath’s temperature than it is to cool it down.
- Pour cold water into your tub, just enough to provide a shallow basin. You’ll need room to add cubed or chipped ice, or commercial ice sourced in a bag.
- Add a thin, sparse layer of ice to the tub, which should float towards the surface. For best results, use a water thermometer to ensure the water is between 50℉ and 59℉ (you may use a meat thermometer if you have one handy).
- Add additional ice as necessary, in increments, to reach the desired number in that range. Your water-to-ice ratio should be about 3:1, Dr. Nieto adds.
- Slowly lower yourself into the bath; ideally, you’re able to submerge your legs, abdomen, and arms, or particularly any area that is inflamed due to an injury.
- In general, Dr. Nieto recommends remaining submerged for at least 10 minutes for best results. You shouldn’t remain in the water beyond 15 minutes at most, especially if it is on the colder end of the spectrum.
If at any point you start to feel too cold, uncomfortable, or in pain, you should get out of the tub immediately.