Taking an ice bath after a workout is becoming increasingly common. What is all the hype about?
Ice baths are a popular way to recover from intense exercise because they soothe sore muscles and reduce swelling. Ice baths should be performed at certain time intervals, dependent on the type of exercise and desired results. Exercise caution when taking ice baths.
Before adding an ice bath to your workout routine, you need to know all about the benefits and risks that you may experience. Ice baths will be most effective when you follow proper timing suggestions.
Benefits of ice baths
The National Library of Medicine has inconclusive results about the evidence behind ice bath benefits. The benefits are there but may be influenced by the placebo effect. There are certain mechanisms within our bodies that line up with the reported benefits of ice baths, but more research is needed to further explore how ice baths work.
Ice baths should be used as part of a holistic recovery plan that also includes good nutrition, adequate sleep, hydration, massage, and stretching.
Ice baths are a common practice among many athletes because most of them experience benefits. One of the most well-known benefits is a reduction in muscle soreness. Many people find that taking an ice bath after an intense workout soothes their tired muscles and prevents feelings of soreness in the next few days.
Feeling comfortable and reducing pain is such a big deal for athletes and gymgoers because it enables you to work harder. When your body feels comfortable, you will be able to push harder and improve more in your next workout. Sore muscles can make it very difficult to maintain an intense workout regimen.
The way our body works can back up these benefits. When you exercise, your muscles are warm and blood vessels are open. Lactic acid and metabolic waste can build up in your bloodstream while you work out, especially if it is intense.
When you get into the ice bath, the sudden drop in temperature will quickly shrink your blood vessels and force movement. The movement of blood will flush out any waste and acid. Excess lactic acid is a huge contributor to feelings of soreness.
The blood movement also helps get oxygen and nutrients to your muscles faster. You need plenty of oxygen to help them recover.
The heart is constantly opening and constricting to create blood flow. The ice bath forces the blood flow to increase since the vessels are being constricted after opening during exercise.
Inflammation and swelling throughout your body also benefit from ice baths. Cold temperatures reduce the size and severity of the swelling, and increased blood flow promotes faster healing.
Another benefit of ice baths is the numbing effect. The ice bath acts like a giant ice pack. When you get a small injury, an ice pack helps soothe the pain because the coldness reduces the pain you feel. With more full-body injuries, an ice bath can be much more efficient than piling on multiple ice packs all over your body.
Some studies have found that ice baths can have emotional benefits as well as physical. The shock of cold water is thought to trigger a nervous system response, increasing positive hormone production. Ice baths and cold showers may help with depression symptoms and improve your mood.
An ice bath could be the perfect way to end your workout feeling emotionally and physically better than before.
Risks of ice baths
Many people are apprehensive about ice baths because of the temperature. Initially, the freezing cold water is definitely not pleasant. Some people say it feels better with time, but some people may never enjoy actually sitting in a huge tub of ice and water.
Carefully monitored ice baths are a safe temperature, but you do need to be careful. There is a risk of hypothermia if the temperature of the bath is too low, or if you stay in the bath for too long. You need to check the temperature of the bath and set a timer each time you take an ice bath.
Due to the extreme nature of ice baths, it is not a safe or effective choice for everyone. If you have any underlying health issues, you should definitely talk to your doctor before adding an ice bath to your routine. People with heart problems are at a specific risk for complications.
Ice baths change your blood flow, which can have awesome benefits for your muscles. However, it is not a good idea to mess with your body’s natural blood flow if you have any sort of cardiac abnormalities. The shocking change in blood flow may cause additional strain on your heart or be difficult to manage.
There are some mixed opinions when considering the effect that ice baths have on muscle gain. On the one hand, if you do not feel sore, you will be able to work out more and gain more muscle mass. However, the extreme construction of your muscles right after a workout may reduce muscle growth. If you are a bodybuilder or are looking for big muscle mass gains, consult with your coach or trainer before starting ice baths.
When you take an ice bath, you risk increased soreness. Many people report reduced soreness, but some notice no difference and some feel like the pain is worse the next day. If you are noticing more costs than benefits, ice baths may not be right for you.
How long should you sit in the ice bath?
When timing your ice baths, you want to make sure that you are in there long enough to get the full benefits. However, you also want to make sure you are out quickly enough to prevent any symptoms of hypothermia.
Most athletes will sit in the ice bath for at least 5 minutes. This allows time for your body to fully cool down, and all of your blood vessels to constrict. 10 minutes is a pretty good standard for most people, although some people may prefer 15.
You should not stay in an ice bath for longer than 20 minutes. 20 minutes is when the first signs of hypothermia begin when someone is submerged in 41-degree water. Your ice bath shouldn’t be that cold, but 20 minutes is plenty of time to get the benefits you want and will help you stay safe in case of a temperature shift.
When you are in cold water, the contraction of your blood vessels will cause blood to move toward your heart and the core of your body. After 20 minutes or longer, the lack of blood in your limbs will make it difficult to move and you will lose coordination.
Some people prefer to use a temperature-alternating method. This would require two baths, one with ice and one that is room temperature or lukewarm. You would go bath and forth between the two baths, alternating every minute, 5 or more times. The repeated contrast in temperature will cause your blood vessels to close, then open, then close, and so on. This can be an effective method if you are struggling to endure the extreme cold for long periods of time.
How cold is an ice bath?
For safety and effectiveness, your ice bath should be between 50 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit. This is pretty easy to monitor will any sort of thermometer. Commercial ice baths may have a thermostat built in, or you can use your own. A floating pool thermometer works really well and is very affordable as well.
Physically, the temperature of an ice bath feels extremely cold. 50 degrees may sound like a pretty nice day outside, but it feels very different when you are submerged in water at that temperature, usually with minimal clothing coverage.
There may or may not be pieces of ice floating in the bath with you, depending on your setup. The shock of submerging yourself in the bath will probably take your breath away for a moment. However, you do need to remember to breathe as normally as possible.
After sitting in the bath for a few minutes, the shock will wear off. You will still feel very cold of course, but the numbing effect of the cold temperatures should help you feel a little more comfortable. People who have been using ice baths for months or years may not even feel the initial shock anymore because they are mentally prepared for the extreme temperature.
Where to take an ice bath
Some fitness centers may have ice baths, but you will likely want to have a set-up at home either way. The most obvious place to set up an ice bath is in your bathroom, in the tub. You will have to buy bags of ice to lower the temperature of the water far enough. You can also add Epsom salts to lower the freezing point of the water.
Unfortunately, most bathtubs are not large enough for an adult to fully submerge themselves. This can be a good temporary solution, but you should look into something larger if you can.
Another option is to buy an ice bath. These are typically designed to be kept outside and are insulated with a lid to help maintain temperature between baths. You will still need to add ice consistently, but you won’t have to start over every time like you would with a bathtub.
The insulation will keep the water cool during the summer and will prevent it from completely freezing in the winter. Check the temperature each time to make any minor adjustments.
Insulted ice baths can get expensive, so you could try to DIY one instead. An inflatable pool, large chest freezer, or plastic storage container could work. When finding a container remember that you will need to be able to submerge your body up to the base of your neck, so it needs to be quite large.
DIY options will not be as insulted as actual ice baths, but keeping it under a covered patio and under a tarp will help a little bit.
When do you take an ice bath?
You should take an ice bath after an intense workout. Usually, this includes HIIT, weightlifting, long-distance running, or anything that is going to cause muscle damage and muscle soreness.
Light workouts, recovery workouts, or maintenance workouts do not typically need an ice bath after. There is nothing wrong with taking an ice bath after these types of exercises, but you will not notice many benefits.
You can take an ice bath daily, or just once or twice a week, depending on your workout schedule. The frequency of ice baths is going to be different for every individual.
The timing of an ice bath after your workout may vary by individual as well. Some people believe it is best to get in the ice bath as soon as possible after your workout, definitely within the first 2 hours. This flushes out the lactic acid before it has a chance to set in and will help with quick muscle repair. It will also reduce the immediate inflammation you experience after a hard workout.
Other professionals recommend waiting 24 to 48 hours to get in the ice bath after an intense workout. The day’s time allows for your body to go through its natural inflammation. The inflammation helps your body adapt to the additional strain you are putting on it. Waiting a day to take an ice bath may be a good solution if you are worried about restricting muscle growth.
Can you take an ice bath before a workout?
Ice baths are typically used right after a workout for muscle recovery. However, a pre-workout ice bath may be helpful in specific circumstances. Usually, an ice bath before a workout is only beneficial if you are preparing for a very intense competition in very hot temperatures.
The ice bath will cool your internal body temperature right before your race or event, and your body will stay cooler for longer. A cool body can improve your endurance and performance. No one likes feeling hot and sweaty for hours and hours.
If you live in a hot climate like Arizona or Florida you might enjoy an ice bath to help your body stay cool during outdoor workouts. This can be especially beneficial for marathon runners or triathletes that are outside nearly the whole day.