Cutting-Edge Research: Can Cold Baths Help Recovery?

Many club and college teams routinely use cold water immersion after matches or intense training days. Studies have shown that cryo- or cold-therapy can prevent or reduce exercise-induced muscle damage and muscle soreness. Rather than applying icepacks to different muscle, sitting in a cold bath will accomplish he same effect. But is this treatment really effective? Will cold water immersion prevent muscle damage? Will it improve performance the next day? These questions were addressed in a recent study conducted by a group of Australian researchers.

Several earlier studies indicate that cold-water immersion does help alleviate muscle soreness in the days following intense exercise. It also aids in restoring lost performance. When intense exercise is performed, it can cause micro-damage to the muscle fibers. This injury initiates a cascade of events leading to further damage and resulting in soreness, stiffness and loss of performance (see “The Painful Truth About Muscle Soreness”). By quickly cooling the muscle, immediately after exercise, this process can be arrested and much of the next-day soreness can be avoided.

Unfortunately, most of the earlier studies use a single bout of exercise followed by cold water immersion. They did not ask their subjects to repeat the exercise bout over the following days. This made it difficult to apply the results to a soccer season where players train or play matches on a daily basis. To address this, Dr. Greg Roswell and colleagues used a simulated soccer tournament where players played daily matches over a four-day period. The goal was to simulate a tournament situation.

Two groups of junior player (age 16 years) took part in the four-day study. They were divided into two groups, one that under went 10min of cold water immersion (10º C or 50º) immediately after each match and one that under went immersion in a bath near body temperature (34º C or 93º F). The players all played one match per day for four days. About 90min before each match, they performed several physical performance tests that included repeated sprint and vertical jump tests. Blood samples were also drawn and analyzed for markers of muscle damage.

The researchers found that the cold water immersion did not improve any of the sprint or vertical jump values. Nor did it affect any of the markers of muscle damage. However, the cold treatment did reduce the players’ perceptions of muscle soreness and fatigue. In fact, all of the players using the cold water immersion felt that it was beneficial and aided their recovery between matches. Only one of the players in the other group felt that way.

Based on there results, the investigators concluded that cold water immersion after matches played on successive days did not benefit performance or prevent muscle damage. It did, however, have positive effects on the player’s feelings of muscle soreness and fatigue.

While this is an excellent study, the main criticism is that there were no measures of match performance or fatigue experienced within the match. The performance tests were given before each day’s match was played. A lower perception o f pain and fatigue can improve a player’s confidence and play on the field. It may also reduce the perception of fatigue at the end of the match. Also, any positive effects of cold water immersion on the body might not be noticeable until late in a match when fatigue begins to affect play.

A quick (and very non-scientific) survey of the Virginia Tech men’s soccer team confirmed what the researchers found about perception. Nearly all of the players asked readily agreed that cold water immersion after a difficult training or match play made them feel more “refreshed”, less sore and less fatigued. Despite the discomfort of sitting in a cold-tub for 10min, all were more than willing to do it.

As far as a recommendation on cold water immersion, most studies show positive effects on performance, muscle damage and the perception of pain and fatigue and this study confirms that players “feel better” using the cold bath. Since players tend to perform better when they feel better, their perception might lead to improved performance during the match. Thus, trainers can confidently recommend this type of treatment for post-match or post-training recovery.


Roswell GJ, Coutts AJ, Reaburn P, Hill-Hass S (2009) Effects of cold-water immersion on physical performance between successive matches inhigh-performance junior male soccer players. Journal of Sports Sciences. iFirst article.

Other Studies:

Halson SL, Quod MJ, Martin DT, Gardner AS, Ebert TR, Laursen PB. (2008) Physiological responses to cold water immersion following cycling in the heat. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 3: 331-346.

Bailey DM, Erith SJ, Griffin PJ, Dowson A, Brewer DS, Gant N, Williams C (2007) Influence of cold-water immersion on indices of muscle damage following prolonged intermittent shuttle running. Journal of Sports Sciences, 25:1163-1170.
Posted by Jay Williams, Ph.D.
Labels: Equipment, Injuries, Training