They are designed to limit exercise-induced muscle damage and inflammation and reduce the degree of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). While the former is scientifically debatable, most agree with the later. Ice baths provide some benefit in terms of soreness, pain perception and the severity of DOMS. A new study from Australia questions the benefits of this post-exercise routine. The researchers found that ice baths, used after weight-training sessions actually limited the gains in strength compared to an active cool down. This raises the question, should players use ice baths after training? Do they do more harm than good?
The first part of the study focused on two groups of 12 men who strength trained two times per week for 12 weeks. In this study, lower body strength training was emphasized. Immediately after each workout, one group took an ice bath – a 10 min soak in 10C or 50F. The other group used a 10-min active recovery of light stationary cycling.
After the training period, the active recovery group showed greater gains in muscle mass and muscle strength than the ice bath group. For the most part, the difference is mass and strength gains were considered moderate to large. This suggests a fairly potent negative effect of cooling the muscle after training.
The second part of the study found that using ice baths after a weight workout blunted the cell signaling pathways responsible for muscle hypertrophy. Activation of key proteins and satellite cells were diminished when an ice bath followed the workout. In other words, the biochemical processes that stimulate muscle growth seem to be inhibited by cooling the muscle. This results in less strength and muscle mass gain.
This is similar to what seems to happen with antioxidant supplement use. The consensus on antioxidants is while they may curb muscle soreness, the also limit training adaptations. It’s becoming more and more clear that the cellular pathways responsible for muscle damage, soreness and adaptation are critically linked. When we disrupt those pathways, we may limit the training effect. By blocking damage and soreness in the short term, we may hinder the long-term effect of training. In other words, we may need to let some aspects of the soreness process play out in order for the muscle to improve itself.
In short, the age-old line, “muscle must be broken down before it can be built up” may have some truth to it. However, this is not to say that the more one damages a muscle, the stronger it will get. It simply means that the processes of training, soreness and adaptation are all linked through training.
What does this mean for recovery from training? Should we pull the drain plug on ice baths? That’s a good question that remains open to debate. If we assume that ice baths alleviate DOMS, is it possible that reduced soreness will improve the amount work done during training? Enough to overcome the adaptation-blunting effects of the ice? Also, remember this was a weight training study focusing on muscle strength and hypertrophy. It was not a soccer training study where the goals might be different (fitness, technical performance, etc). In terms of fitness, ice would not affect cardiovascular adaptations. Also, technical and tactical training is not generally linked to muscle strength. How does muscle soreness affect that important aspect of the game? Hopefully more research can answer those questions and take a more comprehensive look at the overall effects of ice baths on performance and training.
Unfortunately, like many studies, this one raises more questions than answers. Hopefully more research into ice baths and cryotherapy will shed light on how to develop an effective recovery strategy.
Roberts LA, et al. (2015) Post-exercise cold water immersion attenuates acute anabolic signaling and long-term adaptations in muscle to strength training. Journal of Physiology, 18: 4285-4301.