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How Effective Are Ice Baths for Training Adaptations?



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A popular trend in recovery has been the use of cold water immersion or ice baths. They may improve your sensations of soreness and short-term recovery after hard training, but are they the best thing for long-term training adaptation?

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Ice baths have become popular for many athletes after hard training or competition. This work originally started out with contact sports like rugby and football, featuring lots of muscle damage from impact along with running. The general theory is that the cold water decreases blood flow, reducing muscle inflammation.

While getting into cold water is not the most pleasant sensation for many, the practice often leads to a sense of well-being from the sympathetic nervous system activation and subsequent adrenaline rush. Studies often report a decrease in perceived muscle soreness the day following hard training.

The vast majority of studies on cold water immersion for recovery uses severely damaging exercise, such as downhill running, plyometrics, or eccentric muscle contractions, actions quite different from the non-impact and concentric contractions in cycling. Yet the activity is crossing over to cycling too, with again the main idea of reducing inflammation and thus enhancing recovery.

But while this may be desired for short-term recovery, is it the best idea for long-term training adaptations? Scientists are realizing that the inflammation from exercise may be the key trigger for cellular adaptations, and that reducing the inflammation actually reduces the long-term adaptations and benefits from training.

In today’s video Toolbox, we take a look at one of the very first studies to perform a long-term trial on the efficacy of cold-water immersion as a recovery tool, with a study comparing training responses over 8 weeks of strength training with either cold-water recovery or passive rest.

Click below to watch the video!

 

Video Transcript

We’ve probably all seen photos of athletes sitting in a cold bath and forcing a smile through gritted teeth. The idea is that the cold bath will help them to recover faster from training or a game.

In today’s episode, we’ll take a look at whether there is real effectiveness to cold water immersion, or whether it’s all pain and no real gain.

After training, our body repairs itself from the stress of our workout, rebuilding the body to become stronger. Competitions, especially in contact sports like rugby, football, or hockey, can cause a lot of bruising and damage. So one focus for athletes is to maximize or increase the rate of recovery, and one very popular recovery method has been cold water immersion, or CWI. The idea behind CWI is that the cold stress reduces blood flow to the muscles. In turn, this can reduce the amount of swelling or inflammation, which can further damage the muscles and increase muscle soreness.

CWI CAN be very good for reducing muscle swelling and soreness. However, while this is good in the short term and after hard competition, it may actually be counterproductive for long-term training. That’s because research is showing that, rather than being a bad thing, the inflammation from training may actually be an important trigger that stimulates the body to repair and grow stronger. So if you reduce inflammation, you may feel better in the short term, but you might actually be getting less long-term benefit from your training.

Most CWI and recovery studies have been very short-term, just looking at one or two training sessions. A 2021 study looked at CWI as a recovery tool over 8 weeks of leg-based weight-training, with 11 participants training 3x a week. After each session, they either spent 10 min immersed up to the neck in 15°C, or else they did a control and just rested on a couch for 10 min. They were tested before and after the 8 weeks of training, and again 3 weeks later.

On the graph we see the results for the strength and power tests at pre, post, and 3 weeks after training, with the CWI in blue and the control in white. The authors saw a slight improvement in strength and power in the control condition WITHOUT CWI. However, there was actually a trend towards slightly less strength and power over time when CWI was used! The circumference of the thigh increased with both recovery methods. However, when using ultrasound to measure the thigh muscle itself, the CWI recovery actually led to less muscle thickness! One big improvement to this study would be if they had taken muscle samples to really look at the structural and metabolic changes in the muscle cells themselves. However, this study is unique in being such a long study tracking CWI use. Importantly, not only does CWI appear to provide no positive benefit when used with training, it seems to actually make training less effective, so it doesn’t seem to be a very useful tool for athletes. However, it may still be useful after competitions with a lot of muscle damage, as the focus then is on damage control rather than adapting to training.

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Reference

Poppendieck W, M Wegmann, A Hecksteden, et al. Does cold-water immersion after strength training attenuate training adaptations? Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 16(2):304-310, 2020.

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