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Can ice bathing actually improve our recovery?

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Richard Staudner

First Things First: What do we actually mean by ice bathing? Colloquially, this word is used for various forms of cold therapy. But in the end, it is bathing in cold water. In fact, people rarely actually bathe in or with ice or ice cubes because of the amount of effort involved. For newbies and athletes, I don't think there is a need there either. Instead, the water should be between 10 and 20°C cold. Depending on the goal also a little colder. My shower at home even manages to get down to about 6°C. But that doesn't mean I really have to use this low temperature. 

Thanks to Sebastian Kneipp and Wim Hof, ice bathing is no longer just a topic for physical and mental health. In our latitudes, it is now also popular in sports for recovery after exertion. 

Is that really smart? What's the point?

When is the ideal time for an ice bath or the use of cold?

Here you can find out what exactly is behind it and how ice bathing can be useful for you and your training. 

The effect on recovery after sports

In research, ice bathing is also called Cold Water Immersion, or CWI for short. That's what we'll call it from now on in this article. Of course, in addition to CWI, there are also so-called "dry" applications, e.g. a cryo sauna. I will discuss the differences, advantages and disadvantages in another article.

So where is CWI supposed to help in the sports world? The quality of improved recovery is said to show up in several ways. For example, muscle soreness is said to be reduced or usual performance is said to be regained sooner. It has also been shown to reduce biochemical markers that develop as signs of tissue damage from exercise. 

Let me get to the point right at the beginning of this article:

Yes, ice bathing helps recovery, but with limitations depending on the type of load. Of course there are limitations and also dangers. These must be taken into account in competitive sports, otherwise undesirable effects will quickly occur. 

Another exciting, but rather unknown topic around cold in the there is still.

Precooling or percooling! These are cold applications directly before and during training. These are designed to help you achieve unimagined performance. 

So cooling instead of warming up? Exciting, isn't it? 

I will also cover this topic in one of the next posts. 

Effect on muscle soreness and pain?

Ice bathing significantly reduces muscle soreness, according to the latest analysis published in 2021, but only in the first 24 hours. After that, the effect is not really different from other recovery variants or passive recovery. (1). In plain language, this means that you can use it to get over the first intensely painful period, and when the muscle soreness becomes weaker afterwards, the person no longer feels any particular effect. You will be game ready again faster! And it is certainly good for the head if you feel better before the next competition or training or?

However, if you look at older analyses, the results are not so clear, but different parameters are also examined. No two studies are alike. Muscle soreness can be reduced in the short or long term (2,3)

But with different effectiveness, depending on the type of training! 

With High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) it has proven to be highly effective on the 2nd day after, with "normal" strength training from the 3rd day. But here only moderate (3). You could now casually lump HIIT training and, for example, soccer together. They are both intermittent sports. So there is an alternation between pause and activity or low and high speed. The inference could be a similar principle of action. So ice bands probably helps in ball sports in a similar way as after HIIT training. 

Another study group found that muscle soreness can be significantly reduced throughout the recovery period and less fatigue is felt immediately after ice bathing than after passive recovery (4). Another analysis in professional sports again found no muscle soreness reduction (5)

As always, not everyone agrees on the science.

However, it can be said that ice bathing tends to have a positive effect on the reduction of muscle soreness. Not 100% unambiguous, but just tend to. 

It's best to just try it yourself!

Improved performance or performance maintenance in the recovery phase 

Normally you should adjust your training and your training schedule so that you don't train with sore muscles, but there are times when this is unavoidable and you need to perform well again shortly after training or a competition. For example, in tournament mode. 

Ice bathing after training can improve the fast strength, such as sprinting or jumping performance. Especially on the 2nd day after the load, the effect is serious. On the other hand, the maximum strength does not seem to be strongly influenced. (3-6)

Improved in these cases does not necessarily mean better performance than usual. Instead, the performance is simply not as degraded by the previous load as it would be in a comparison group without ice bathing.

Biochemical parameters are also interesting factors for a change in regenerative capacity. For example, the lactate concentration can be significantly reduced (7). Lactate is a metabolic product that is formed when glucose is broken down under anaerobic conditions. That is, in the absence of oxygen. An indicator in endurance sports, among others.

However, the creatine kinase removal is not or hardly influenced (3,5,7)

Creatine kinase is used in sports as a cue to assess training intensity and unaccustomed exercise. 

So what is the best method for competitive sports?

To reduce muscle soreness, it has been found that temperatures between 11 and 15°C and also dwell times of 10-15 minutes produce the best results. Too much cold stress is not beneficial for recovery, so do not stay too long or in too cold water (2). As for the training itself, more is definitely not!

Amateur athlete or professional? Who should ice bath?

It is well known that beginners and professionals have different needs and challenges in training. Ice bathing also seems to have different effects depending on the training condition. As always, due to the different settings in science, there are often also different answers to a question. Again according to the motto, the soup tastes a little different with every cook. 

Direct comparisons are not available, but in one study, funnily enough, some research groups found little or no positive effects among professionals (5)but for generally athletic, i.e. also hobby athletes, already (2). As you can see, it's a bit more individualized and you definitely can't lump everything together when it comes to cold interventions. 

An example of these different results for the same question: A study by the scientist Higgins found no or only very limited benefits for ice bathing in professional sports. Another study by Machado looked only at amateur and professional athletes, i.e., not beginners, and again found positive effects. See what I mean? 

More research results are still lacking, the topic is still in its infancy despite its age. But nevertheless, cold therapy and CWI can be said to have a rather positive effect in competitive sports. The subjective feeling is here again more than relevant. 

Basically, I can tell you one thing: If it feels good and you don't overdo it with frequency, net time in the water and temperature, then by all means stick with it! From personal experience I can only say one thing, the mood lifting from cold therapy alone is definitely worth it. But also the positive effect on the immune system, sleep and cardiovascular system are reason enough to use cold as an athlete. 

That's why I recommend it to every person, beginner or pro, as long as you're smart about it, it's good. 

For athletes, there is definitely something else to consider! Of course, the different body type is also relevant. Especially tissue with high muscle mass at low fat mass is strongly supplied with blood and therefore cools down faster than fat-rich tissue. Take this into account when choosing how much time you spend in the water. If you have a very low body fat percentage, then you should not spend too long in the water. 

The ratio of body surface area to body weight in muscular individuals is also responsible for rapid cooling. More muscular area, cools down faster (8).  

Never forget. The quantity makes the poison. In my opinion, more than 3-5 minutes are not necessary for your health development with daily use. For your recovery with regular use, the recommendation remains at 10-15 min. 

Be considerate of the body's adaptation mechanisms!

If your goal is simply to achieve the best performance by any healthy means and therefore you want to incorporate ice bathing into your training rhythm, then it is important to take a look not only at the short-term effect, but also at the long-term effect. 

Let's remember the good old model of supercompensation in sports!

Muscle soreness, minimal inflammation and swelling of the tissues, among others, are important components of the training stimulus, which then activates the growth. 

Simply put, through the damage your training does, you trigger an improvement or positive adaptation in recovery. You break something a little bit and it gets better. 

This is called the Hormesis principle, we know it by now. And here you have to deal with an important question! Do I want to accelerate the healing? 

So that leads me directly to my next question: 

Does regular ice bathing reduce the increase in performance? Does it block these mentioned adaptation mechanisms of the body?

Long-term effects of regular ice bathing

Regular ice bathing directly after exercise can harm your training progress! At least in strength training this effect is clearly visible, but not so much in endurance sports. 

In strength training, athletes who have not used an ice bath for recovery actually improve more than with ice bathing. Importantly, it's about using CWI immediately after training, not a day later. 

They increase performance, measurable in maximum strength, isometric strength, strength endurance, lower and have overall performance losses. At least, these are the results of a brand new, high-quality analysis of several studies (9). This is really a very interesting information, isn't it? 

Why? 

Exactly we do not know yet but here are a few guesses: 

  • Cold exposure decreases muscle protein formation at many sites:  
    • Inflammatory mechanisms that are necessary for muscle growth are inhibited
    • important signaling pathways are blocked 
    • reduced proteins are formed from the DNA templates. 
  • The cold probably stimulates autophagy and cell death. This may also promote muscle protein breakdown. After all, autophagy is our body's recycling process for unusable cells.  
  • The formation of the precursors of new muscle cells is inhibited. (10)
  • Ice bathing could also inhibit the natural testosterone release that is stimulated after exercise. However, this is controversial and only slightly studied. (11-13)

With endurance training, as already described, the effect does not seem to be as dramatic. This could be due, among other things, to the fact that the cardiovascular system also plays a central role here. This is not so strongly influenced by ice bathing. Also even positive effects are assumed, for example by a possible increased formation of the Mitochondrien, thus our cell power stations, or better excitability of the muscles. However, the research results on the so-called biogenesis of the mitochondria are, as I have described in another article, rather meager. It is not yet possible to make recommendations based on these without going too far out on a limb. (10)

A little more profound the whole

Maybe you are curious now and want to know what exactly takes place when you lie down in the ice water after a workout. 

First, the blood is redistributed. This is a protective mechanism of the body to avoid hypothermia. As a result, more blood reaches the center of the body and is pumped away from the skin. As a result, metabolic products are removed from the muscles and local blood. This is positive, because the muscle can be deacidified quickly, for example, but then hardly anything can be transported there. The vessels are so constricted that only little oxygen and nutrients can be supplied for the muscle growth. 

The vasoconstriction also reduces the formation of swelling and edema in the muscle, which could be one of the main reasons for less pain the next few days. 

The high central blood volume also activates the parasympathetic nervous system. While at first you experience the cold shock and activate the sympathetic nervous system, your body then gets more and more used to it. We remember: 

Sympathetic is the system for fight or flight and parasympathetic for rest and digestion. You are either in one system or the other. 

The activated parasympathetic nervous system symbolizes peace and relaxation to your body, which you will also feel when you get out of the ice bath, a kind of inner peace, there is no more talk of stress here.

Then, of course, the muscle cools down locally, so directly after the ice bath it is not very efficient and should be warmed up again. However, this cooling can also have positive effects before the sport, more about this in another article about precooling in sports (14,15)

Conclusio

Ultimately, what matters when deciding whether to incorporate CWI into your plan is your primary training goal. Ice bathing definitely has different effects. For example, it has a positive effect on muscle soreness and pain caused by training.

But the timing is important! If CWI is used permanently directly after training, a limitation of the performance increase is to be expected. You will disturb the supercompensation. So it makes sense to use ice bathing only in selected situations directly after training. In the competition phase or in periods characterized by short recovery times, it can be a helpful strategy and temporarily have a positive influence on your performance. For example, when you have several competitions in a tournament in close succession. About daily or at least frequently in a week. 

Otherwise, it is better to use ice bathing in the form of, for example, cold showers in the morning. So not directly around your training. Of course you can also use it in the afternoon after a morning workout. Please leave enough time for a good night's rest! Warm showers make more sense before going to bed. 

If you've been using ice baths after your workouts for a while and now you're worried that it's torpedoing your training progress, go without for a few weeks, but keep training. 

Keep track of your progress and record it in a training diary. Has anything changed? Of course, this makes the most sense if you are using long-term strength plans and can therefore assess positive or negative changes. 

But still, it's best to make sure there's a break of at least 2 hours between workouts and ice baths.

As mentioned in part, ice bathing is used not only for regeneration, but also to promote health, well-being and stress resistance. 

Ice bathing is a fantastic tool to bring your mental abilities to a new level and also to strengthen your immune system. For this reason alone, it should be relevant for you to integrate the cold into your daily routines.

For more on this and how to integrate ice bathing as a newbie, check out the following blog articles and podcasts from me.

Also, this article is available to listen to anywhere there are podcasts (Spotify, iTunes, etc.) 

I wish you much success in your "frosty" experiences and your athletic development!

Your Performance Optimizer & Biohacker

Richard Staudner

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To do this, use the code "richard20" on the website www.btonic-performance.at  

Sources

1. Wang Y, Li S, Zhang Y, Chen Y, Yan F, Han L, et al. Heat and cold therapy reduce pain in patients with delayed onset muscle soreness: A systematic review and meta-analysis of 32 randomized controlled trials. Physical Therapy in Sport. Mar 1, 2021;48:177-87.

2. Machado AF, Ferreira PH, Micheletti JK, de Almeida AC, Lemes ÍR, Vanderlei FM, et al. Can Water Temperature and Immersion Time Influence the Effect of Cold Water Immersion on Muscle Soreness? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med April 2016;46(4):503-14.

3 Leeder J, Gissane C, Someren K van, Gregson W, Howatson G. Cold water immersion and recovery from strenuous exercise: a meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med Mar 1, 2012;46(4):233-40.

4 Bleakley C, McDonough S, Gardner E, Baxter GD, Hopkins JT, Davison GW. Cold-water immersion (cryotherapy) for preventing and treating muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. February 15, 2012;(2):CD008262.

5 Higgins TR, Greene DA, Baker MK. Effects of Cold Water Immersion and Contrast Water Therapy for Recovery From Team Sport: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res. May 2017;31(5):1443-60.

6. Altarriba-Bartes A, Peña J, Vicens-Bordas J, Milà-Villaroel R, Calleja-González J. Post-competition recovery strategies in elite male soccer players. Effects on performance: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2020;15(10):e0240135.

7. Gu P, Zhang L, Zheng X, Zhang X. Effects of post-exercise recovery methods on exercise-induced hormones and blood fatigue factors: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Annals of Palliative Medicine. Jan 2021;10(1):18493-18193.

8 Stephens JM, Halson S, Miller J, Slater GJ, Askew CD. Cold-water immersion for athletic recovery: one size does not fit all. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. Jan 2017;12(1):2-9.

9 Malta ES, Dutra YM, Broatch JR, Bishop DJ, Zagatto AM. The Effects of Regular Cold-Water Immersion Use on Training-Induced Changes in Strength and Endurance Performance: A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis. Sports Med Jan 1, 2021;51(1):161-74.

10 Broatch JR, Petersen A, Bishop DJ. The Influence of Post-Exercise Cold-Water Immersion on Adaptive Responses to Exercise: A Review of the Literature. Sports Med. June 1, 2018;48(6):1369-87.

11 Earp JE, Hatfield DL, Sherman A, Lee EC, Kraemer WJ. Cold-water immersion blunts and delays increases in circulating testosterone and cytokines post-resistance exercise. Eur J Appl Physiol. 1 Aug 2019;119(8):1901-7.

12. Russell M, Birch J, Love T, Cook CJ, Bracken RM, Taylor T, et al. The Effects of a Single Whole-Body Cryotherapy Exposure on Physiological, Performance, and Perceptual Responses of Professional Academy Soccer Players After Repeated Sprint Exercise. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. February 2017;31(2):415-21.

13. Schimpchen J, Wagner M, Ferrauti A, Kellmann M, Pfeiffer M, Meyer T. Can Cold Water Immersion Enhance Recovery in Elite Olympic Weightlifters? An Individualized Perspective. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. June 2017;31(6):1569-76.

14 Bleakley CM, Davison GW. What is the biochemical and physiological rationale for using cold-water immersion in sports recovery? A systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine. March 1, 2010;44(3):179-87.

15 Ihsan M, Watson G, Abbiss CR. What are the Physiological Mechanisms for Post-Exercise Cold Water Immersion in the Recovery from Prolonged Endurance and Intermittent Exercise? Sports Med Aug 1, 2016;46(8):1095-109.

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