When it comes to staying on top of your lifting game, a few factors are just as important as a high-quality recovery plan between workouts. Some athletes prefer foam rolling, while others swear by low-intensity runs on their “off” days. For others, it’s about embracing the cold – specifically cold water immersion (CWI).
Ice baths, a more casual term for CWI, have risen in popularity in recent years. Fitness guru Wim Hof - who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in the winter in his underwear and is a hot supporter of the cold – and celebrities like Joe Rogan routinely talk about the benefits of sitting still in a tub filled with ice water. High-level strength and power athletes use ice baths to improve recovery from high-intensity competitions and training sessions. Although the exact mechanisms are not fully understood, there are some conflicting results that suggest that CWI may or may not be an effective recovery option for weightlifters, weightlifters and other athletes.
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Here are the cold-hard facts and findings about CWI, the potential benefits and possible harmful long-term effects on muscle recovery and adaptation as we know them at the moment.
Benefits of ice baths
Disclaimer: Exposure to extreme cold can affect people with cardiovascular conditions. You should check with your doctor before experimenting with colds of any kind, and especially if you have a cardiovascular condition.
Decreased muscle soreness
According to a 2017 study, CWI can reduce inflammation and muscle soreness after intensive training. (1) The study caused 15 participants to immerse themselves in water that was 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) for 15 minutes after their training. A control group rested in ambient (room temperature) air.
Researchers found that CWI was effective in reducing the inflammatory marker neopterin two hours after participants’ mixed martial arts training sessions. In other words, 15 minutes in cold water can help you reduce muscle soreness after exercise instead of just relaxing at room temperature.
Increased perceived recovery
Immersion in cold water can also help athletes feel as if they are getting better. A 2017 study found that MMA competitors who thumped in cold water after exercising reported being less sore than those who did not. (1) A study from 2018 also used 15 minutes of immersion in cold water (15 degrees Celsius or 50 degrees Fahrenheit) for participants after a competition with mixed martial arts. (2)
Participants who sat up to their torso in cold water baths actually performed less well on various fitness assessments shortly after the immersion (e.g., sprint). But athletes consistently reported feeling better – sleeping harder, being less stressed and reporting less fatigue – according to the CWI. In other words, if you Enjoy slipping into a freezer bath will probably help you. If you do not, there is probably no reason to force yourself.
Faster recovery from cardio
Do you need to recover quickly between bouts of intense cardio? A 2010 study had 41 male elite athletes perform 20-minute sessions of exhaustive, extensive exertion, and periodic training. (3) These high-intensity cardio attacks were followed by 15 minutes of recovery.
Participants who used cold water during these 15 minutes recovered faster than those who did not. So if you want to perform multiple rounds with a total effort, 10 degrees Celsius immersion in cold water between sessions can help you come back even stronger.
Improved recovery from High Impact Training
For athletes participating in high-intensity training, a 2010 study showed that immersion in cold water can increase acute recovery. (3) This may be especially true if the way you exercise has a big impact.
MMA fighters in particular seem to benefit from CWI in the short term, reporting that they feel less sore and are less inflamed after sessions and simulated competitions. (1) (2) If you feel tossed around after a particularly intense deadlift or squat session, it might be a good idea to immerse yourself in some cool water.
Reduced heart stress
Especially when exercising in the heat, immersion in cold water after your sessions may help relieve your heart stress from exercise. A 2019 study showed that CWI may not reduce your physiological stress levels or otherwise improve hormonal recovery. (4) However, after 45 minutes of cycling in a warm environment, the study found that CWI helped reduce participants’ heart rate faster than passive recovery.
Can boost your immune system
A study published in 2014 explored the idea that humans strengthen their immune system response through a combination of meditation, breathing techniques, and cold exposure. After the study participants were exposed to a bacterial infection, it was found that the group implementing the above techniques experienced fewer symptoms.
The researchers note that they believe the deep breathing was more influential. However, deep breathing often goes hand in hand with colder exposure, and they believe that cold exposure can help build a stronger immune system over time. (5)
Who should try ice baths
Ice baths may not be for everyone – and frankly, they can be uncomfortable, especially for the uninitiated. But if they are furious among people at your CrossFit box, it is understandable to wonder if they are something for you. Ultimately, it depends on your training goals – and your preferences.
If your training involves being beaten or otherwise slapped around quite a bit, CWI may be able to give you relief. Martial artists who train for their sport with high power – or who want to recover immediately after a competition – can choose to defy some icy water.
Athletes who train with high intensity
High-intensity training can create a whole lot of soreness – not to mention mental fatigue. Immersion in cold water may be just what you need to relieve your immediate muscle pain and get you to your next session.
Athletes who enjoy the cold
Regardless of your sport or training methods, you can benefit from immersion in cold water if you love the cold. If you think it will make you feel better, it is likely to do so. This is why the studies discussed above have found that perceived improvement after CWI is high even though your hormone levels remain the same.
How to include ice baths in your program
If it sounds like ice baths can be a great addition to your recovery routine, then you need to be strategic about how you integrate them into your program. As with pretty much anything in training, start with your goals and make sure you gradually change your routine.
Evaluate your goals
A study from 2020 showed that immersion in cold water can actually be that bad for hypertrophy in the long run. (6) Muscle biopsies after sustained immersion in cold water showed that the cold exposure reduced the level of protein you need to build muscle after a workout. Keep this in mind when considering integrating ice baths into your program. If hypertrophy is your goal, you may want to avoid CWI.
However, if your goal is to recover faster between intense sessions or experience less muscle soreness after a strenuous workout, you may decide to move on.
Find your tolerance level
Most of the studies discussed in this article above had athletes immersed in cold water (about 50 degrees Fahrenheit or 10 degrees Celsius) for 15 minutes. If it sounds like a walk in the familiar park, it’s great. On the other hand, if the thought of even 15 seconds in cold water makes you shake, remember to build your tolerance.
Just as you gradually increase your load during exercise, you will gradually need to adjust to an effective ice bathing routine. If 15 minutes is not enough, start with 30 seconds or a few minutes and add time each week until you are at a level you are comfortable with.
Periodize your recovery
According to a 2021 study, a periodic approach to recovery may help athletes get the most out of CWI. (7) Just as you do not train in the same way all year, you do not need to recover in the same way all year. Base your CWI approach on what you do with your training, this study suggests.
Do you go through a training block with particularly high intensity or high power? Are you recovering from a competition? CWI can be good for you. If you are in a hypertrophy block, you may want to hold back on the cold water. Accrue your CWI the same way you accrue your training if you want to maximize the benefits.
Should you try immersion in cold water?
If CWI immersion is detrimental to hypertrophy goals and potential long-term training success, why do so many athletes swear by it? What gives? It seems like it’s a matter of perspective.
If you are evaluating the effectiveness of CWI, ask how you measure effectiveness. If your goal is to help you feel better, and it does, then this is great. If your goal is to build more muscle or receive tangible performance improvements, you may want to stick to more proven recovery methods.
- Lindsay A, Carr S, Cross S, Petersen C, Lewis JG, Gieseg SP. (2017) The physiological response to immersion in cold water after a training session in mixed martial arts. Applied physiology, nutrition and metabolism. May 2017; 42 (5): 529-536.
- Tabben M, Ihsan M, Ghoul N, Coquart J, Chaouachi A, Chaabene H, Tourny C, Chamari K. (2018) Cold Water Immersion Enhanced Athletes’ Wellness and 10-m Short Sprint Performance 24-h After a Simulated Mixed Martial Arts Combat. Limits in physiology. November 1, 2018; 9: 1542.
- Rowsell GJ, Reaburn P, Toone R, Smith M, Coutts AJ. (2010) Effect of running training and immersion in cold water on subsequent cycle training quality in high-performance triathletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2014 Jun; 28 (6): 1664-72.
- Ajjimaporn A, Chaunchaiyakul R, Pitsamai S, Widjaja W. (2019) The effect of cold shower on recovery from high-intensity cycling in the heat. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Aug 2019; 33 (8): 2233-2240.
- Kox M, van Eijk LT, Zwaag J, et al. Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and weakening of the innate immune response in humans. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2014; 111 (20): 7379-7384. doi: 10.1073 / pnas.1322174111
- Peake JM, Markworth JF, Cumming KT, Aas SN, Roberts LA, Raastad T, Cameron-Smith D, Figueiredo VC. (2020) The effects of immersion in cold water and active recovery on molecular factors that regulate the growth and rebuilding of skeletal muscle after resistance training. Limits in physiology. June 30, 2020; 11: 737.
- Ihsan M, Abbiss CR, Allan R. (2021) Adaptations to immersion in cold water after exercise: friend, foe, or in vain? Limits in sports and active Live. 2021 July 16; 3: 714148.
Selected image: Dudarev Mikhail / Shutterstock
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