Ice Baths & Recovery- Medieval Torture or Valuable Practice?

“Recovery.  That’s the name of the game in sport.  Whoever recovers the fastest does the best”

Lance Armstrong, 7x Consecutive Tour de France Winner

Introduction Recovery strategies are widely promoted within the media leading to a general acceptance by both the lay public and athletes that these strategies aid in post -exercise recovery. In basic terms, appropriate recovery results in the restoration of physiological and psychological processes, so that the athlete can compete or train again at an appropriate level. Recovery from training and competition is complex and involves numerous factors and is typically dependent on the nature of the exercise performed and any other outside stressors that the athlete may be exposed too. Recovery is one of the most neglected principles of competition and training, with coaches and athletes often needing to be reminded that adaptations to the demands of daily games and workouts only occur when an athlete is NOT training. Historically there has been limited research on recovery protocols, particularly those for power/speed/strength-based sports. Recovery protocols have been largely employed on the basis of “anecdotal” evidence rather than well constructed research. This leads to the practical problem- does one wait for the research to validate recovery processes, or does an organization/coach/therapist embrace these practices whole heartedly and evaluate the results in light of research as it comes to date. Fortunately, the last 2 years has seen increased interest in “recovery” as a research area. This article reviews some of the recent research with respect to “Ice baths” What does the research say? An excellent review from (accessed 19.10.09) reveals the following: Roswell et al. (2009) submersed athletes in water at 10 degrees centigrade and 34 degrees centigrade after each match during a simulated football tournament of four days. Players showed no difference in test of physical performance but players in the cold-water immersion group did report less leg soreness and less feelings of general fatigue. This study concluded that cold-water immersion does not decrease inflammatory response or muscle damage but it does lead to decreased perceptions of fatigue and leg soreness. These conclusions are similar to the study on cyclists by Halson et al. (2008), which demonstrated that athletes undertaking cold-water immersion post exercise did not show any difference in physiological markers of fatigue compared with participants who were not immersed in cold water. However once again subjective reporting by the participants indicated decreased muscular soreness and less feelings of general fatigue. Montgomery (2008) looked at cold-water immersion during a basketball tournament and examined the effect of various recovery protocols performance tests. All subjects showed decreased performance in the tests but the subjects who used cold-water immersion showed the least performance decrement. Crawley (2009) found that cold water immersion was more effective in recovery than contrast (alternated warm cold) bathing. With cold-water immersion resulting in lower perceptions of muscular soreness, less time to achieving baseline sprint performance. Vaile et al. (2008) found that cold-water immersion and contrast water immersion were more effective in enhancing recovery than either hot-water immersion or passive recovery. In a second study Vaile et al. (2008) looked at performance recovery using a series of water immersion techniques. They was found that cold water immersion was an effective way reduce the physiological symptoms of delayed onset muscle soreness and also showed that subjects who used cold water immersion recovered force and power production better than subjects who did not use cold water immersion. Bailey et. al (2007) looked at the effect at the of cold water immersion after prolonged exercise (90min shuttle run test). The testing resulted in extreme muscle soreness and cold-water immersion was shown to reduce some but not all indicators of fatigue. Cold-water immersion improved ratings of muscle soreness and improved muscle force generation compared with subjects who did not participate in the cold-water immersion. In this study creatine kinase was not reduced for the cold-water immersion group. Morten (2007) looked at the effect of cold-water immersion on recovery from intense anaerobic exercise. It was found that after an intense cycling test designed to produce a significant amount of lactic acid that submersion in cold significantly improved lactic acid recovery levels during the 30-minute period post exercise. They concluded that cold-water immersion was a valid way of speeding recovery from intense anaerobic activity.


  • Ice baths can be used as a means of recovery
  • The evidence primarily suggests that physiological markers of fatigue may not be affected
  • Psychological markers and perceived soreness appear to be the primary beneficiaries of ice baths.
  • The lack of measured improvements in physiological measures shows more research is required to establish the reasons for the improved psychological recovery as a result
  • There appears to be benefits for most types of exercise
  • Recommend dosage  is submersion of 1-2 minutes repeated 3-4 times and separated by 30 seconds
  • Recommended water temperature is 10-12 degrees centigrade

References Bailey, D.M., Erith, S.J., Griffin, P.J., Dowson, A., Brewer, D.S., Gant, N., & Williams, C.,(2008).Influence of cold-water immersion on indices of muscle damage following prolonged intermittent shuttle running. J Sports Sci, 25(11).1163-70. Halson, S.L., Quod, M.J., Martin, D.T., Gardner, A.S., Ebert, T.R. & Laursen, P.B.,(2008). Physiological responses to cold water immersion following cycling in the heat. Int J Sports Physiol Perform, 27(6).565-73. Ingram, J., Dawson, B., Goodman, C., Wallman, K. & Beilby, J.(2009). Effect of water immersion methods on post-exercise recovery from simulated team sport exercise. J Sci Med Sport, 12(3).417-21. Montgomery, P.G., Pyne, D.B., Hopkins, W.G., Dorman, J.C., Cook, K., Minahan CL. (2009). The effect of recovery strategies on physical performance and cumulative fatigue in competitive basketball. Journal of Sports Science, 26(11).1135-45. Morton, R.H. (2008).Contrast water immersion hastens plasma lactate decrease after intense anaerobic exercise. J Sci Med Sport, 10(6).467-70. Rowsell. G.J., Coutts. A.J., Reaburn. P. & Hill-Haas, S.,(2009). Effects of cold-water immersion on physical performance between successive matches in high-performance junior male soccer players. Journal of Sports Science, 27(6).565-73. Vaile, J., Halson, S., Gill, N. & Dawson, B.(2008). Effect of hydrotherapy on recovery from fatigue. Int J Sports Med, 29(7).539-44. Vaile, J., Halson, S., Gill, N. & Dawson, B.(2008). Effect of hydrotherapy on the signs and symptoms of delayed onset muscle soreness. Eur J Appl Physiol, 103(1).121-2. (accessed 19.10.09)

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