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Benefits of Ice Baths for Muscle Recovery

Should You Add Ice Baths to Your Workout Recovery Routine?

You often hear of professional athletes and Olympians taking ice baths to soothe their aching muscles so they can continue to maintain peak performance. But you might be wondering, what exactly is an ice bath? And how does it boost post-workout recovery?

At some point in your fitness journey, you’ll inevitably battle muscle soreness, whether it’s from a rigorous workout or easing back into training after a hiatus. Our muscles are in constant use and when we’re not sore, we often don’t think about how much we rely on them every day. After an intense sweat sesh, we may realise there are certain muscles we didn’t even know we had until they started to cause discomfort.

While there are many ways to heal and soothe sore muscles, including foam rolling, stretching, and myofascial release, an ice bath is one you should consider adding to your list of remedies before you head back into the gym.

What Causes Sore Muscles?

There are a few different theories surrounding what causes muscle pain. When our bodies go through an intense exercise experience, lactic acid is produced in our muscles because the body is low in the oxygen it needs to convert glucose into energy. The lactic acid produced is thought to be one of the culprits for the muscle burn you feel towards the end of an intense workout. Eventually, the liver breaks down any excess lactate which helps to gradually reduce that pain or burning feeling.

Delayed onset muscle soreness, however, which tends to occur about 24 to 48 hours post-training sesh, is thought to be the result of inflammation in the body after a workout causes microscopic tears in the muscles. In this case, after the soreness passes and the muscles recover, they come back stronger. Hence the saying, “No pain, no gain.”

How Does an Ice Bath Help Soothe Sore Muscles?

The theory behind exposure to cold temperatures is that it helps to combat the microtrauma or small tears that occur in muscle fibers and result in achy and sore muscles caused by intense or repetitive exercise. To date, the research on ice baths has been inconclusive. Depending on who you consult, the benefits they offer may vary. Either way, ice baths certainly won’t do you any harm (this assuming you get the all-clear from your doctor, especially if you have a heart condition or diabetes).

I can say with certainty, after being a pro-boxer for many years and taking blow after blow, you learn a thing or two about sore muscles and what actually works to relieve some of the pain.

Dr. John Gallucci, Jr., MS, ATC, PT, DPT, CEO of JAG-ONE Physical Therapy and Major League Soccer Medical Coordinator agrees: “Although the research is inconclusive on ice baths the one benefit that I have seen as a former athlete myself, and in speaking with athletes through my tenure, is that it does provide relief of aches and pains following an intense workout,” he says.

Ice Bath Benefits

Relieve Muscle Pain and Improve Mental Focus: During the cooler months of the year, when you’re already enduring cool temperatures outside, the last thing you want to think about is an ice bath. However, it’s one of the first things you think about when you’re a boxer with sore muscles. The ice bath itself, of course, isn’t the best feeling, but you’ll thank yourself later when your muscles recover faster. You can use the time in the ice bath as your mental training to help improve your physical training, too.

Reduce Inflammation and Improve Circulation: Aside from reducing pain, the cool temperature of an ice bath can also decrease inflammation and improve circulation. Two important factors if you want to get back to the gym. Our inflammatory response is limited due to the decrease in temperature from the ice bath, thus less inflammation is likely to occur. Ice baths constrict blood vessels, flush waste products like lactic acid, and reduce swelling and tissue breakdown. As the muscle tissue warms it increases blood flow and speeds circulation and this is how the healing process is jump-started.

Keeps Your Body Cool:

 Ice baths also help to decrease the impact of heat and humidity on the body. If you’re going to be in a setting where there is an increase in temperature or humidity, taking an ice bath prior to working out or doing a strenuous type of exercise, like running a marathon, can lower your core body temperature by a few degrees which can lead to enhanced performance. This is often referred to as pre-cooling.

How to Take an Ice Bath

According to Dr. Gallucci, “An ice bath consists of sitting in a cold immersion tub with water temperatures of between 50-59 degrees Fahrenheit for 15-20 minutes. Usually, the first two minutes or so the cold will feel as if it is intensifying and then following that the skin will go numb. It is important to set a timer so that you know how long you have been in the tub.”

Ice baths (or cold therapy) are easier to take when already submerged in the cold water (ease into the water) and by slowly adding in the ice. Ideally, two to three commercial bags of ice will be added. It will also help to wear socks and shorts to keep your core temperature up while allowing the icy water to work its magic.

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