Benefits and Side Effects of Ice Baths for Athletes

Benefits and Side Effects of Ice Baths for Athletes

Ice baths and cryotherapy are all the craze right now. Athletes and average gym-goers are using cold exposure after exercise as a tool to speed up recovery and improve performance. This article will present information regarding ice baths to help you understand if this type of therapy is best suited for your sports and training.

Importance of Recovery for Athletes

When it comes to any kind of athletic progress, whether you want to gain muscle like the sky, or you want to run like bolts or workout like Rich Froning, you need to do two things to progress. You need to stimulate your body through training, and you must then recover from that training. The two scenarios which are not good for the trainer concerning their health and activity are, either the athletes may be under training by taking too many rest days after training or the athletes may be overtrained and under recovered by not taking enough rest.

What they need is a balance between training and recovery but if athletes want to increase their performance, they would need to train more and recover faster. It is for this reason that so much research and effort are spent on trying to speed up recovery. A failure to recover fast enough from additional training would just send the athlete back into an overtrained state where their performance would again drop and their risk for injury increases.

The quest for speedier recovery has been intensified using methods like massage, compression outfits, electro muscular stimulation, and saunas. Each of these protocols tries to tackle recovery in a slightly different way. The underlying theme of all of these methods is to reduce inflammation and the soreness you get post-exercise. 

Ice Baths for Recovery

Coldwater immersion does a wonderful job combating this issue. Reducing inflammation using cold water immersion has been found to enable athletes to recover quicker. In a study, it was found to significantly improve the performance of cyclists who had back to back races on the same day, one group was allowed to take a 5-minute bath in cold water which was at 14 degrees Celsius, whereas the control group did not take any specific measure during their rest period. During the first race, both groups performed identically but in the second race, the first group who took the ice bath performed significantly better than the control group.

Due to very specific conditions, it could not be related to typical training days.

Side Effects of Ice Baths

The long-term benefits of reducing acute inflammation post-exercise are questionable. Acute inflammation is a necessary part of the muscular-skeletal repair process. If Cold water immersion is a part of an athlete’s regular post-workout regime, the long-term adaptation and muscle growth can be negatively affected by curbing these natural biological processes. Findings have been recorded in multiple medium-term studies showing these adverse effects of consistent and continuous cold water immersion. Coldwater immersion may be a useful tool during multi-event competitions, but not consistently after everyday training. 

Cold Shock Therapy Research

However, before we jump to conclusions, let’s take a deeper dive into the research. When someone’s core body temperatures rapidly decrease using ice baths or cryotherapy, like cold shock, proteins are released. Cold shock proteins have two primary benefits. 

  • Firstly, these proteins have muscle protecting abilities which are essential to hibernating animals, who are inactive for many months during the winter. 
  • Secondly, cold shock proteins also regulate fat metabolism, which is also the primary fuel source during hibernation. 

The effects of cold shock proteins may be beneficial to endurance athletes, especially those who are ketogenic and heavily rely on fat metabolism as a primary fuel source. The release of these proteins can also be of interest to athletes who are unable to train because of injury, sickness, travel, or any other reason and want to limit muscle wasting. It is also important to note that for the release of cold shock proteins to occur, there needs to be a minimum of a two-degree Fahrenheit drop in core body temperature. 

So, the duration and intensity of the cold exposure need to be sufficient for these benefits to occur. Melatonin, the sleep hormone, can also help in the production of cold shock proteins, which suggests that cold water immersion may be best timed at night when cortisol, the antagonistic hormone, is low and Melatonin is naturally elevated. Timing cold water immersion in this way may even improve sleep quality, which can further improve recovery from exercise.

Benefits of Ice Baths

Extreme cold exposure increases the size of the mitochondria, which are engines within muscle tissue responsible for aerobic respiration. Over time if this increase in aerobic capacity continues, the fiber makeup of muscles will also shift towards more slow-twitch type one fibers, rather than faster type two counterparts. This change in muscle fibers is matched well with the previously explained upregulation in fat metabolism, as type one fibers have the metabolic flexibility to use both glucose and fat as their primary energy sources.

These findings relate well with studies that found that endurance athletes had performance-enhancing effects from regular cold water immersion while strength athletes’ performances were hampered. Therefore athletes who are focused on building strength and aerobic capacity, utilizing predominantly type two muscle fibers are better suited as using an active recovery protocol post-workout.

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So we can sum up the above-mentioned literature review as follows:

  • CWI may be useful in multi-event competitions, especially in hot conditions.
  • Cold exposure improves fat metabolism and increases the development of type 1 muscle fibers.
  • Strength and power athletes may not benefit from continuous cold exposure.
  • During times of inactivity, cold shock proteins released through cold exposure may prevent muscle wasting.
  • CWI improves sleep quality and could be a useful nighttime ritual.
  • The body should be submerged up to the neck in 10-15 degrees Celcius with the core body temperature drop of at least 2 degrees Fahrenheit.