The Cold Hard Truth About Ice Baths

Taking the icy plunge: Smart, dangerous or plain waste of time?

A new study coming out of the UK casts doubt on the effectiveness and safety of the post-workout ice bath.  In addition to shocking the body—a dangerous event for anyone with a heart problem—the ice bath was not shown to be more effective at reducing soreness than other post-workout treatments, such as a warm bath or gentle massage.

The theory behind post-exertion ice bathing, also known as cryotherapy, is to reduce the inflammation that follows strenuous activity. But researchers in Ireland found that while taking an ice bath can reduce post-workout soreness, it only did so in comparison to doing nothing. Stretching and taking a warm bath were also effective in reducing soreness.

Cryotherapy might not just be risky and unnecessary, though. It might also act to undermine all your hard work. The whole point of training is to introduce a stimulus that will trigger an adaptation response in the body. By reducing the severity of the training stimulus, you might be limiting the resulting adaptation response. Put more simply, if you reduce the impact of a tough workout, your body might not improve as much.  

The point of Smart Marathon Training is to be smarter than we are brave. Sure, your running friends might marvel at your ability to plunge your body into a bathtub filled with ice, but I’d bet that they’d be more impressed if you posted faster race times.  Being tough earns no extra points unless it’s combined with being smart.

Keep in mind, however, that while attaining some inflammation may be desirable in training, the rules change on race day. A hard race provides a stimulus that may be higher than your body’s adaptation capability—which is why we don’t run hard races too frequently. In those cases, anything we can do to reduce the impact of the race on our bodies will help with recovery and reduce the risk of injury, all without sacrificing the adaptation level we can achieve and maintain.

Even so, a warm bath with some light stretching sounds much better to me than ten agonizing minutes of ice-cold submersion.