Already fatigued from a long, hard run, many athletes plunge themselves into a frozen ice bath with the idea that the cold water will slow inflammation and hasten healing.
But that extra suffering may not be necessary, suggest a new study, which found no benefits for runners of taking a post-workout ice bath.
“It doesn’t help you feel better and it doesn’t help you perform better,” said lead researcher Naomi Crystal, of the University of New Hampshire, in a press release. “Ice baths are very popular as a treatment, but … they’re miserable. If it doesn’t work, you don’t want to waste your time.”
For the study, 20 male college students ran for 40 minutes on a slight downhill grade because running downhill, in particular, is known to cause muscle-cell damage and inflammation. Afterwards, 10 of the men were unlucky enough to be assigned to stand for 20 minutes in a tall recycling bin filled with ice water to thigh-level. The water was chilled to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The other 10 runners stood quietly for 20 minutes in the lab after their run, but they were allowed to stay warm and dry.
At intervals between an hour and three days after the treatment, the researchers conducted a battery of tests designed to measure soreness, strength, swelling and inflammation. Tests ranged from subjective (runners rated how sore they felt when walking down stairs) to precise (researchers measured levels of inflammation-indicating proteins in the runners’ blood).
Results, published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology showed no differences between the two groups on any of the measures.
There was a slight trend toward lower levels of inflammation in the group that bathed in iced after running, the researchers wrote in the paper, but the results were not statistically significant. Also, levels varied widely from one runner to the next, making it impossible to conclude anything except that future studies will be needed to determine whether there is a specific ice-bath protocol that might work best. It’s also possible, the researchers say, that taking regular ice baths could actually hinder long-term fitness.
If ice baths help at all, Crystal said in the press release, they might be useful only in the most extreme circumstances.
“Use them sparingly. Use them in tournament situations, use them with an athlete who has done something extraordinary,” she said. “But for day-to-day athletes, I wouldn’t recommend them. They’re painful, and they’re time consuming.”