Plunging into a frigid pool is cool. Ice baths (a.k.a. cold water immersion or cold therapy) is a hit with Zac Efron,
Lady Gaga, Julianne Hough, and many more pro athletes.
All those stars on ice doesn’t automatically mean ice baths are effective, though. You’re probably wondering if the benefits of ice baths are worth becoming a human iceberg. (Same!)
It turns out, using ice baths as a recovery tool comes with its fair share of controversy. In fact, Gabe Mirkin, the physician who originally popularized using ice for exercise recovery in the 1970s, now retracts his original findings, saying that ice might actually delay muscle healing.
These days, most experts use ice baths to minimize muscle soreness, so you can go hard (or harder) the day after a tough workout, explains board-certified sports clinical specialist Leada Malek, DPT, CSCS.
5 Benefits Of Ice Baths
If you’re skeptical about the true ROI of dunking your entire body into a giant 7/11 Slushie, look, that’s understandable! There might just be a few solid reasons to endure the arctic splash, though. Keep in mind the science on the benefits of ice baths is mixed.
1. You may feel an immediate decrease in pain.
While there’s the obvious numbing that comes with putting ice on your bare skin, it’s not the only way ice baths help ward off pain. “Researchers suspect that your perception of pain is lowered as nerve conduction velocity is slowed,” explains Malek. Basically, the system your body uses to signal that you’re in pain goes into slo-mo.
“Vasoconstriction, or your blood vessels narrowing in response to the cold, might also lead to lower localized blood flow,” explains Malek. So, swell-inducing extra blood flow that muscles might receive after a particularly brutal workout gets stopped in its tracks.
The most sought-after benefit of ice baths? That they can help athletes train or perform at high intensities on back-to-back days. “Especially within 24 hours after exercise, ice baths may help reduce both DOMS [delayed-onset muscle soreness] and RPE [rate of perceived exertion]," Malek says. "This helps the athlete get back to previous training intensities more quickly."
Basically, if you have to crush a hard workout and get back after it the next day, taking an ice bath in between can help minimize performance-wrecking swelling and waste buildup in your hard-working muscles. Hence why Gaga might have done so on tour.
4. You might feel less stressed.
While no studies directly link ice baths with stress reduction, anyone who’s applied cooling ointment to a rash or simply splashed cold water on their face in the morning knows the uplifting effects a cold treatment can produce. “Because of the immediate pain relief, some people report feeling happier or more alert after an ice bath,” explains Malek. Plus, the extreme temperatures force you to modify your breathing to be deeper and more controlled, which might also contribute to the de-stress effect, she adds.
5. It cools you down fast.
It may seem like an obvious benefit, but it’s worth a mention. Contact with cold water helped overheated people cool off twice as fast as alternative methods, per a 2015 review.
Potential Risks Of Ice Baths
Before you go cannon-balling into a tub of ice cubes, though, there are a few potential downsides you should probs keep in mind.
1. They can be dangerous.
Think chilling in icy water like those shipwreck survivors sounds fun? “A person can experience hypothermia and frostbite with improper execution,” warns Brandon Nicholas, CPT. Plus, since ice baths can slow your heart rate, they’re probably bad news if you have a heart condition.
Malek adds that people with diabetes should also avoid icy soaks, since they often have trouble maintaining their core body temperature when exposed to extreme changes. (Definitely check with your doc.)
One major drawback for anyone trying to build muscle or get fitter: Post-workout ice baths might actually hinder muscle repair and growth, according to a 2019 study in the Journal of Physiology. The researchers noted that exercisers who took ice baths following workouts had lower levels of a muscle growth-related protein and higher levels of a muscle breakdown-related protein than those to kept their recovery room temperature. Womp, womp.
Much like the romance I’ve created with another regular at my morning coffee joint, the benefits of ice baths might just be, well, imaginary. Yep, ice baths’ positive effects are at least partially due to the placebo effect, suggests one Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise study. Nothing against the placebo effect, but good to know.
How To Tell If Ice Baths Are Right For You
If ice baths can help you feel less stressed and wash away aches and pains, it’s no wonder celebs are all about it (even if it is just placebo effect). But, whether it’s worth the hassle of filling a tub with ice water and coaxing yourself in, is up to you.
“With all the conflicting evidence, it’s hard to say if ice baths are truly beneficial,” says Malek. “Ice baths take a few minutes to get into because of the frigid temperature, which makes me wonder if taking an ice bath is just a waste of time and perhaps recovery efforts would be better spent doing something else.”
Ultimately, unless you’re some sort of athlete and have to crush a workout or competition tomorrow after an intense training sesh today, you can probably skip the tub time. Instead, focus on techniques like foam rolling and stretching, Malek suggests.
How To Take Ice Baths Safely
Hell-bent on submerging in Titanic-level temps? There is a right way to take ice baths to stay safe. Before you unload the freezer, here are a few guidelines from experts to follow:
No tub or simply want an ice bath alternative? Go for a cold shower, instead, adds physical therapist Chad Walding, DPT. Here’s how he recommends cooling off under the shower head:
Julia Sullivan, CPT