We all have seen athletes using an ice bath or hear them speaking about a cold shower. After a workout in hot weather, you might want to take a cold shower to cool down. Or just refresh yourself. Is there really any benefit for it or can it be even harmful?
cold water immersion advantages?
Coldwater is believed to reduce DOMS, fatigue, inflammation, muscle damage and speed up recovery. Also, some studies show cold water helps repairs micro-tears that are caused during a workout, reduce swelling and increases blood circulation.
Many athletes use cold treatment also for cooling down mechanics especially in a hot climate. Some people also use ice bath for toughening up and think it’s more like a psychological game. “The more you can take it the tougher person you are.” There’s a point behind this, especially if you are training for a race that will be held in extreme condition.
Some studies were unable to prove any of the claimed advantages to be true. Many claimed advantages might be only placebo effects or only help partly but not show significant benefit. Results also variate between methods and timing. It’s not simply to say which methods are beneficial and which not, as there are so many variances. Workout, weather, body temperature, cold immersion method, timing, duration and person itself affect the outcome. After all, we have to remember that sometimes placebo effect can be very strong and even helpful.
what method to use?
Cryotherapy is a cold treatment which temperature often varies from -30 degrees to -195 degrees. Depending on the temperature and the treatment it’s often used about 2-4 minutes. It’s claimed to reduce DOMS however the impact is variance. The result depends on the timing and number of treatments. Cryotherapy is often expensive and difficult to get access, some studies are unable to show any significant benefits. Also, due to the harsh temperature, it can be dangerous for some people or cause skin freezing and problems.
Similarly, contrast immersion (hot-cold variation), show no significant benefits but it MAY help reduce pain, decrease blood lactate concentration.
Ice bath and cold shower reduce inflammation. BUT, it can be harmful when using for minor muscle injuries, as it also delays fiber regeneration. Icing can prolong the healing process, which is why some professional doesn’t follow the RICE method anymore (rest, ice, compression, elevate). However, if you aren’t an athlete who needs to get as soon as possible back to training and racing, you can use ice for minor injuries. In other cases consults, doctor, team physio, etc. to get the best treatment depending on injuries and/or training/racing season.
Therefore, ice baths or cold showers are the easiest way to perform the cold treatment. They are cheap and you can easily modify the temperature.
Timing and the take-home message
Even though, many cold treatments’ benefits are mostly placebo effect or might only help slightly. They can be performed if a person personally feels advantages of them. You shouldn’t use the cold treatment every day and too much. The best time is to use them right after the workout, to lower body temperature back to normal. Studies have shown that 11-15 degrees around 11-15 minutes give the best advantages. Importantly, if you are new with the cold treatments, start a shorter time. The colder the water is the less time is needed. Don’t overdo it. And remember if you are not like cold or you are not interested this, don’t force yourself to do it. You probably won’t lose anything!
Ihsan, M., Watson, G., Lipski, M., & Abbiss, C. R. (2013). Influence of postexercise cooling on muscle oxygenation and blood volume changes. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 45(5), 876-882.
Bleakley, C., McDonough, S., Gardner, E., Baxter, G. D., Hopkins, J. T., & Davison, G. W. (2012). Cold‐water immersion (cryotherapy) for preventing and treating muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (2).
Hamlin, M. J. (2007). The effect of contrast temperature water therapy on repeated sprint performance. Journal of science and medicine in sport, 10(6), 398-402.
Dupuy, O., Douzi, W., Theurot, D., Bosquet, L., & Dugué, B. (2018). An evidence-based approach for choosing post-exercise recovery techniques to reduce markers of muscle damage, soreness, fatigue, and inflammation: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Frontiers in physiology, 9, 403.
Peake, J., Singh, D., Lonbani, Z. B., Woodruff, M., & Steck, R. (2015). The effects of topical icing after contusion injury on angiogenesis in regenerating skeletal muscle. The FASEB Journal, 29(1_supplement), 826-5.