DEC 28, 2019 3:09 PM PST

Consider Skipping The Post-Workout Ice Bath

WRITTEN BY: Abbie Arce

In an effort to get heart-healthy, many people have experienced the painful after-effects of an intense workout. Weather cardiovascular or strength training, delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can creep in a day or two after strenuous exercise. DOMS causes pain and stiffness in exercisers during muscular recovery. While people cope with this pain in a variety of ways, many, including world-class athletes, turn to the long-practiced tradition of an ice plunge or cold water bath.

Working out creates tiny micro-tears in the muscles. These tears, when repaired by the body, are filled in. This process produces larger and stronger muscles over time. The immediate side effects of this muscular micro-damage, swelling, and pain are the key symptoms of DOMS. Because cold water reduces the body‘s temperature, swelling, and inflammation, it was thought that these plunges were good for recovery. 

For many years, athletes, scientists, coaches, and recreational fitness enthusiasts believed that cold baths were beneficial. Although some still swear by them, the latest science surrounding the practice challenges this belief. 

Earlier this month, a new study, published by the Journal of Physiology, found the athletes who use cold plunges following a workout actually stalled muscular regeneration. This regeneration is a crucial component to building muscle following the application of adequate stress. 

Unfortunately, the reduced inflammation caused by cold baths also reduces blood flow to the area. This inhibits vital oxygen and essential nutrients from reaching recovering muscles.

For the study, researchers had a group of self-described “recreational athletes“ perform an exercise routine. Then, researchers had participants place one leg in an ice bath and the other in lukewarm water. Researchers then took biopsies of the muscles to establish a baseline for how the body reacts to exercise. For the second phase of the experiment, participants exercised for two weeks, and after each session placed one leg in the ice bath, the other received no water. Biopsies were again taken each session, two hours post-workout.

What researchers found was that the iced legs took in fewer amino acids than did the non-iced legs. They also had reduced protein synthesis.

Though the participant pool was small and limited to white males, the study supports what others have found. Additionally, this particular investigation had the added advantage of taking muscular biopsies. Other studies simply asked participants to self-report pain and recovery ratings, which is, of course, highly subjective.

So why are people still using ice baths in light of the latest science? “Pain,” says Nicole Dabbs, a kinesiologist at California State University. That said, the practice does have a place in athletic performance, particularly for recreational exercisers. Because people are less likely to work out if they experience pain, this technique might help keep some individuals coming back for more time in the gym. Something to keep in mind in fitness is part of your new year’s resolution. 

This pain management technique is especially important as more Americans are becoming obese, a risk factor for heart disease. Heart disease is currently the number one killer in the US. Regular exercise has been proven time and time again to prevent heart disease and many of the associated risk factors. 

Sources: Journal of Physiology

About the Author
  • Abbie is an AFAA certified personal trainer and fitness instructor with an interest in all things health-science. She has recently graduated with her BS in Applied Sport and Exercise Science from Barry University in Miami. Next, she intends to earn an MPH with a focus in Epidemiology.
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