Sports Science: Ice baths and dips in cold water work against recovery

By Clint Youlden

We live in strange times when you consider that recovering from physical activity now receives nearly as much attention as training. As an athlete and sports scientist for the past 10 years, I’ve tried every feasible recovery method. And I thought I might give a breakdown on one of those methods, the ice-bath.


The sole purpose of recovery after training or exercise is to get the body back to normal as a fast as possible. When you’re back to normal (which is a body temperature a little over 37degrees) you can do more quality training sessions more often and therefore increase your rate of improvement. Pretty basic stuff, really.
I disagree with ice baths (or contrast baths) as a means of cooling down because they actually stimulate the nervous system by shocking it. This shock is what gives the athletes the feeling of recovery; it’s like a whole body shake-up to make them feel alert. The shock actually fatigues the nervous system further. It’s like doing a 100-metre sprint and then drinking a Red Bull to recover.
An ice bath, no matter the outside temperature, is just too cold. Yes, it brings down core temperature, but so would a room-temperature pool, and a pool would do so with less shock. The human body is not designed for extreme temperature variations so quickly.
Consider what happens to a vegetable when you cook it and then put it in ice-cold water. It stops the cooking process dead (a process called blanching). If you’re an athlete who’s just finished a hard session and you’re hot and flooded with lactic acid, your body tries to recover by moving the blood around and flushing out the toxins. Your heart rate is up after exercise to give your body a better chance of flushing out those toxins. So why would you drop yourself into an ice-cold bath to cease all this activity?
What makes more sense than an ice bath is an active recovery period in an environment that is room temperature or a little cooler. You need to expose the skin to a cooler temperature to allow the cooling process of the body to take place without constricting the veins and arteries or putting the body in shock.
A hot-cold treatment is no good: a hot environment leads to dehydration and production of more waste products from trying to cool down; and a cold environment simply stops the blood flow to the skin and therefore the recovery process. It’s a continual stop-start process that has no real benefit at all.
It also doesn’t make sense to do cold-pool recovery sessions or beach recovery sessions after the body has cooled down (that is, the next day or two). All this does is excite the nervous system again. If an athlete is trying to return to normal following a big session or game, a cold-pool session will only delay the return to pre-game levels.
All the research I’ve read on ice baths shows they have some benefits for recovery, but nothing to make them a better choice than the cheap and easy alternative of active recovery (like light jogging) for 10 to 15 minutes.

You can contact Clint at cannonballspeedunit@hotmail.com

About Clint Youlden

Clint Youlden is a High Performance Sports Scientist that specializes in the biomechanics/coaching and training of speed and is also the inventor (and patent holder) of a training method that simultaneously increases all aspects of athletic performance. He deals with skill acquisition, training, nutrition, supplementation, and recovery of athletes. You can contact him on 0402 498 798 or at cannonballspeedunit@hotmail.com

Comments

  1. Clint – very interesting stuff. I’ve often wandered about these ice baths, but have absolutely no scientific background to challenge the idea. I have a daughter heavily involved in sport and have asked her how she feels after these recovery sessions. Her answer is usually “cold”. She never comments about feeling particularly great.

    Perhaps the old style recovery of a pie and a cold beer isn’t so bad after all?

  2. pauldaffey says:

    Dips,

    When I was playing amateur footy in the ’80s, a strong victory would always be followed by a slab of green cans being thrown into the middle of the room. You sat around with an ice-pack, generally made of a few ice cubes bound up in a strip of old rag, on your wound while sipping on a well-earned beer.

    If we lost we got nuthin’.

  3. pauldaffey says:

    PS. I should add that I wish I knew about recovery when I played.

  4. Pamela Sherpa says:

    Thanks Clint. I have often wondered why players would do something that made no common sense at all. Even without the science cold baths seem like such a daft idea. A warm bath would make more sense to me.

  5. Danielle says:

    i don’t understand how they could cope with that cold!!
    i would refuse to get into an ice-tub.
    its pretty crazy how far they take recovery at the AFL. I know that the Lexus Centre has a number of pools at different temperatures.
    what ever it takes to win i guess.

  6. Thanks for an interesting and informative article Clint. What really intrigues me is how AFL clubs instinctively mimic what other clubs do, a lot of the time without any substance! I don’t think there’s ever been an overly compelling journal article publised to suggest that walking in icy cold water the day after a game has substantial benefits over any other recovery techniques, yet I’d guess almost every AFL club would be advised that this is the ‘optimal’ way to recover and ‘essential’ for any elite athlete.. I’ve also been interested as to why club’s decided to do their recovery sessions, where they walk in the beach, early in the morning? I’m of the opinion that this would be a hindrance to their recovery. Some coaches argue that it’s for discipline, but surely doing what’s best to get the players up for the following weeks game should be the greater priority..?
    If you have the time I’d love to hear what you would recommend players do during their week off to recover, starting from immediately after the game?

  7. Danielle says:

    TRAVIS???
    OMG TRAVIS CLOKE??? :)
    :) :)

  8. Danielle says:

    Sorry, its a habit!
    everytime i see the name Travis, i think of Cloke!! :)

  9. Steve Healy says:

    I remember once on before the game they showed the Roos in the cold water and Matt Campbell won tool of the week for diving in and splashing around while everyone else was standing and shivering.

    I think of Travis Johnstone when I see the name Travis, but only the Melbourne Travis Johnstone not the Brisbane one.

  10. The Cannonball says:

    Putting me on the spot there T-man, asking the entire week protocol! I wont write down any exact methods i’d put together because… we never know who might be stealing our information and palming it off as their own! Hey, I’m not a cynic, I’m a realist!

    The main focus is to get the body ‘back to normal’ or prior to actual game or session. This begins with a simultaneous intake of fast acting carbohydrates and protein to promote an insulin spike and therefore stimulate the glucose and protein uptake (as well as some other things) into the depleted cells. While you are doing this you should be doing some form of active recovery outside for at least 10-15 minutes or longer (or until you feel cold)- walking would be the best i’d say. You could probably jog if you had a win and in a hurry to get back to chat with the cheerleaders or in your case Tav, get back to the autograph line waiting for you after a lazy 42 touches!

    Water intake needs to be continued at about 500-600ml per hour for at least 2-3 hours after the game. This is vital because your heart rate will stay up for at least 2-3 hours and all that time, you are burning more calories and still cooling down. Therefore, dehydrating will be a factor long after you have finished the game and if you don’t consume enough water in this time, it will DRAMATICALLY affect recovery rates- I’m talking 2-3 days! Ad a few beers to that and dehydration gets worse, drink a few beers instead of 2-3 litres of water and your body will forget about recovery and just be fighting to hold whatever water it can. The next day you’ll wake up and be 3-4 kg lighter, look like and feel as BAD as Michael Jackson!

    The next few days should basically be the same active recovery stuff. Maybe a massage in there if you can to identify and fix some tight spots. Progressively building up activity speed and skills to mid-week. Keeping the body temp up and getting the blood flowing until you can get to full recovery and able to push out some free-moving skills by the middle to the end of the week. Finally, 2 days before the game should be full-pace and full skills but for only a short time to spark up the nervous system and do a full-body systems check in preparation for the next game. Light warm-up on the day before the game and you’re ready to lace ’em up!

    Of course I’ve left out a few of the “little’ secrets I would have the players do mid-week as well as things like CNS recovery drinks and various supplements to speed up the processes, but I’ll wait until someone employs me give away those juicy details T-man… I’m sure you understand!

  11. Pamela Sherpa says:

    Fair bloody dinkum! What happened to crawling out of bed bruised and battered, dragging yourself off to work for the week, fronting up to training nursing your sore spots, toughing it out and playing a full game again without a thousand rests on the interchange?

  12. Clint,

    Is there any benefit of being in the salt water of the beach for recovery? I know you’re not a racing fan but trainers have been putting horses in the beach for years to help them recover.

    Also, how seriously do you take anecdotal evidence? If players think they’re recovering better should clubs persist with ice baths/beach sessions?

  13. Clint Youlden says:

    Nathan,

    The theory behind the salt water for horses (or anyone for that matter) is the permeation of the salt through the skin to the body. It works on a concentration gradient of sodium levels in the body and if your body is low on salt, if it is, your hydration levels are low because your body can’t hold onto the water. The salt helps you stay hydrated. The theory is that you get a permeation or absorption of the sodium you need from the water to replenish your body’s levels. Human skin is a lot more permeable than horses, with all that hair and stuff, and I’d bet you’d need to soak your steed for hours to get close to a 1% benefit. Just giving the horse something to eat and drink with a decent amount of salt would fix it in 30 minutes!

    I think another reason they hit the water is to take the loads of the horses feet. You weigh considerably less in water and it might give some reduced weight recovery benefits, but even that wouldn’t be significant to warrant the time and effort. I think it’s just part of the routine like most sports where the people in charge don’t understand or fail to question methods properly- however, there may be something I’m missing so take this with a grain of salt! Ha.

    I take anecdotal evidence with an open mind and never dismiss it. Not as seriously as proper research of course but you can’t ignore it. It’s hard to take it seriously because you are usually dealing with people who don’t understand the variables that are in play. They are often victims of the placebo effect because they have usually invested either time and/or money into what they are doing and desperately want it to work. Often this changes motivation, commitment, execution, feedback etc and leads to results they would’ve got if they had done things properly in the first place. Anecdotal evidence is usually from people who don’t operate at or close to their maximum levels so improvement will always be significant in some area.

    Having said that, anecdotal evidence usually comes first in the sporting arena. Invented by coaches for athletes and performed with success which then determines the need for proper study to support the anecdotal evidence that is already going on in the field.

    So it’s a double edged sword of sorts. Anecdotal evidence from the general public is basically nonsense but NEW anecdotal evidence from the sporting arena requires more in-depth focus before it can be supported or disputed. But always remember… Just because it’s done at the highest level, don’t automatically assume it’s the best thing to do.

    Hope that helps a bit

  14. Clint Youlden says:

    Sorry, I didn’t answer the last question.

    There is sometimes a difference between what an athlete feels and what is actually going on. Like I said in the article. The cold water gives you a shock to your nervous system and gives the feeling of recovery. I know this because I used to do exactly the same thing on a thursday night for the friday session. It gave me a ‘spark up’, or so I thought. What I concluded it does is actually fatigue the nervous system because you lose the maximum contractibility of the muscles for a day or two. This basically shows that the body has gone into shutdown mode due to being overexcited and if it’s done after big game, will only delay recovery more. So when the players say they feel they are recovering better, what it basically is is a numbing of the nerve fibres which decreases pain sensors and muscles tightness sensors and stuff like that. Doesn’t help recovery, just masks the pain so they think they feel better. That’s what I’ve come to conclude anyway- but I could always be wrong of course!!

  15. The Cannonball says:

    Just remembered a small article in last November’s Herald Sun… About a YEAR AND A HALF after I wrote the above article…

    “Healing theory on ice’
    Ice may not aid healing and could have the opposite effect.
    A new study questions conventional wisdom that swelling of sprained or bruised muscles needs to be iced to heal. Prof. Lan Zhou at the Neuroinflammation Research Centre at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, said a study of injured mice proved that muscle inflammation after acute injury was vital to repair.”

    Hmmmm… You understand my frustrations?

  16. I always said you were a man ahead of your time, Clint.

  17. Well chaps…I started using cold water treatment after serious workouts and got good results….not sure what the temperature of the water was but it was through winter using an outdoor pool. Before I got in the pool my muscles felt jittery, my eyes felt like they were swimming and I felt fatigued. After being in the pool for about 10 min all the symptoms disappeared. i continued this for about 6 months while training and had better recovery than previous years, It works for me:)

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