How Ice Bath Recovery Works for Athletes
Professional athletes such as marathon runners and rugby players know that an icy bath is a great way to help their muscles recover after a hard workout. In fact, there is even scientific evidence that suggests the benefits of these treatments. Many athletes swear by it and undergo the process frequently, but does it really work like they say?
Why Ice Baths may be Required
It is a known fact that intense periods of exercise cause microtrauma to the muscles. This means that there are very small tears in the muscle fibers. This microtrauma damage stimulates muscle cell activity to help repair themselves, but it has also been linked to DOMS, or delayed onset muscle pains and soreness. DOMS usually occurs from 24 to 72 hours after exercising. Over time, repeated exposure to muscular microtrauma through hard exercise can end up resulting in further, more serious injury that can put an athlete out of commission.
Scientific Theory behind Ice Baths
Ice bath recovery is a form of treatment called cryotherapy, or cold therapy. Immersion in ice water of the affected areas causes the blood vessels to constrict and metabolic activity to start decreasing. This helps to reduce the tissue breakdown and swelling. Once the skin is removed from contact with the source of cold, the tissues will warm up again and cause faster blood flow to return. This actually causes harmful metabolic debris to be flushed out of the muscles. Using individual ice packs on the affected areas can produce similar results, but total lower body immersion in ice water is a much more effective method of cryotherapy.
Scientific Ice Bath Recovery Research
Studies have been conducted on the effects of four different types of cryotherapy methods on muscle recovery after exercise: 14 minutes of immersion in ice water, 14 minutes of immersion in warm water, alternating cold and hot water soaks, and 14 minutes of simply resting. The findings showed that athletes performed better after ice water immersion and alternating hot and cold soaks, and that their performances declined with rest and hot water only. Faster strength restoration was noted with ice and alternate water temperature immersion.
Conclusion and Recommendation
Based on scientific findings, cold water immersion is not harmful after a tough workout and some will find their recovering abilities strengthened. Alternating cold and warm water soaks has shown similar results. Hot water baths are almost certain to actually decrease recovery time, as well as any passive recovery methods. Active recovery methods are more likely to help an athlete's body repair itself of microtrauma, reduce swelling and get back into shape quickly. Always follow the necessary precautions in order to use any healing methods safely.
Ice bath recovery may seem like an uncomfortable and unnecessary method of healing, but as long as caution is taken to follow suggested guidelines, it can be safely used to help repair muscle microtrauma and increase overall strength and stamina over time. After a few sessions, many athletes even find that they become used to the process and no longer suffer extreme discomfort due to the cold temperature.