Home aging Ice baths after intense exercise do NOT reduce inflammation or speed recovery

Ice baths after intense exercise do NOT reduce inflammation or speed recovery


Optimal muscle care after intensive exercise

I was always under the impression that those icy dips the New Zealand All Blacks are known for are necessary, i.e. proven, to reduce inflammation and speed muscle recovery after their intense training sessions.

Not so according to research carried out in several countries. Ice baths look to be a complete waste of time. (Post-exercise cold water immersion attenuates acute anabolic signalling and long-term adaptations in muscle to strength training)

David Cameron-Smith from the Liggins Institute in Auckland explains what happens when muscle biopsies are analysed after immersion in ice baths and why they may be worse than active recovery. Listen to the complete interview here.

Here are main points from this interview:

An entire Industry has evolved around providing ice baths, yet research now shows they may be a complete waste of time if muscle recovery is your goal.

After intense exercise or a sport where there is physical contact; bruising, tearing and muscle damage result. The process of repair involves inflammation and the muscles will be sore. The original theory was that if you cool the muscle down, you reduce the blood flow, you reduce the level of inflammation and you allow the muscle to repair itself. However, inflammation is actually necessary to optimise recovery.

What the study demonstrated was that ice-baths slow down this process and impair the ability of athletes to regenerate that tissue and get back to playing at their optimal level.

Studies across the world, in Norway, Australia and New Zealand recruited sports people training at an elite level, these volunteers had muscle biopsies taken to compare the effects of ice baths post intense exercise to active recovery (stationary cycle at room temperature)

The first thing that was found was that ice baths do not reduce inflammation.   When the pathways and processes that muscles go through to get bigger and stronger were looked at – they found these were reduced.

Another study followed participants over a 10-week training programme, where they did resistance training 3 times a week, and every time they exercised they were given an ice bath or (the control) cycled on a bike for 10 minutes at room temperature. Ice baths reduced the muscle gain, i.e. the size of muscle, more importantly, they were weaker, less strong and less big than the control group.

The conclusion is that ice baths are not useful for repair and recovery or muscle growth.

What does work for recovery after an intense bout of exercise for example after a rugby game, is sleep. Athletes perform far better if they get 8 hours sleep and quality is important.

What about the RICE method for injury? Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. Studies show that this speeds recovery time versus doing nothing.

We are not talking about injury though, we want to see what speeds up repair after delayed onset muscle soreness, which shows there is some degree of muscle damage – small tears called micro-tears.

Optimal recovery is being aware of the extent of muscle damage, and taking appropriate recovery.

The worst thing you can do is nothing (no movement)  and drink alcohol (Alcohol is a diuretic and adds to dehydration, ethanol directly impairs the pathway for protein synthesis, it adds to the inflammatory response,  and significantly it keeps you awake, as well it impairs your judgement and leads to stupid choices.)

Optimal recovery after sport or intense training:

Drink fluids – get hydrated

Gentle repetitive movement of that muscle for a period of time –  around 30 minutes.

Muscle growth and repair requires protein, and glycogen replacement needs glucose. Eat a combination of carbohydrates and protein. For a healthy diet include whole food plant and fish fats, and fibre is also important.

Taking anti-inflammatories is an inhibitor of muscle repair. Antioxidants supplements also have a negative effect on growth and repair of muscles. Natural forms of antioxidant foods in their whole food forms like blueberries or kiwifruit where you get a combination of lower doses of phytochemical are beneficial for recovery

If you don’t use it you lose it

As we age -from our mid-forties on, there is a slow loss of muscle strength and size culminating in sarcopenia in old age. To avoid this – we must load our muscles, put your muscle under load so it is forced to regenerate and repair. Protein intake is critical for maintaining muscle as well. Being sedentary on the other hand turns on opposite pathways of muscle generation and repair.

It is never too late to start, and anything is better than nothing. Even people with severe sarcopenia can make considerable gains if they start resistance exercise.

Further reading analysing these studies: Using Ice / Cold Water Immersion After Workouts Will Impair Muscle and Strength Gains, as well as Vascular Adaptations


Leave a Reply