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Do ice baths benefit post-exercise recovery and exercise gains?

Updated: Mar 5

What are the benefits of ice baths after workouts or exercise like running, if any? We take a look at the research into ice baths for recovery and also whether an ice bath benefits strength and endurance gains after exercise. Remember, if you need more help with an injury, you're welcome to consult one of our physios online via video call.

Let's look at the research about ice baths for recovery and performance.

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🔎Scientists are studying the relationship between ice baths and exercise in two broad fields:

  1. Recovery – Do ice baths help an athlete to recover quicker after exercise or competition (e.g. to start the next training session sooner or to compete better in the type of event that allows for ice baths during the event)?

  2. Exercise gains – Can the strength and/or endurance gains brought about by exercise be increased by taking ice baths after exercise?

Like with many research topics in sports science, there are no clear-cut answers. Much of the research is contradictory, inconclusive, and riddled with ifs and buts.

However, when we look at the findings of reviews and meta-analyses (studies that number-crunch and summarise the results of many studies), some trends do emerge.

Ice baths for better post-exercise recovery

A comprehensive review of the research into the effect of ice baths on post-exercise recovery, published in 2022, looked at short-term recovery (up to 9.5 hours) and longer term recovery (24 to 72 hours) after endurance, sprint, and strength exercise.

Recovery was measured by how well subjects performed exercises after taking an ice bath versus subjects who did not take an ice bath. These are the main findings:

Recovery after endurance exercise

Short term:

  • Taking an ice bath for less than 30 minutes improved endurance performance, but only if the post-ice bath endurance exercise session was within one hour after the pre-ice bath session.

  • Ice baths had no effect or maybe even a negative effect on jumping and strength performance directly after the bath.

Long term (24 to 72 hrs after):

  • Ice baths were found to have no effect on endurance recovery and neuromuscular function (how well your muscles “fire” during exercise).

Recovery after sprint exercise

Short term:

  • Taking an ice bath had a negative effect on sprint performance for up to two hours after the bath.

  • Ice baths did not influence jumping and strength performance.

Long term (24 to 72 hrs after):

  • Ice baths had some benefits for jumping and strength exercises.

An ice bath may worsen your sprint performance for up to two hours afterward.
An ice bath may impede your sprint performance for up to two hours.

Recovery after strength exercise (resistance training)

Short term:

  • Taking an ice bath could possibly lead to better strength recovery for up to 40 minutes after the initial strength exercise.

  • It could also possibly lead to better fatigue resistance (so you don’t tire as quickly) in the 1 to 6 hours after the initial exercise.

Long term (24 to 72 hrs after):

  • An ice bath could have either no effect or a negative effect on strength recovery.

To summarise:

👍It would make sense to take an ice bath for quicker recovery in competitive situations (races or matches) where you have to perform again (needing either endurance or strength) soon afterwards.

👎But it doesn't actually hold any benefit for longer term recovery and, as you will see in the next section, if done too often it may reduce your gains.

Here's a selection of ice tubs available on Amazon:

Ice baths for better gains from exercise?

What about using ice baths to improve the endurance and strength gains you make after exercise? The study discussed above also reviewed research on the effect of regular post-exercise ice baths over periods ranging from 4 weeks to 12 weeks.

Gains after endurance exercise

The review study found that ice baths have “no clear effect” on the improvement of endurance performance. Two other review studies (2020 and 2021) agree that taking regular ice baths after endurance training does not have a significant effect on improving endurance gains.

Gains after sprint exercise

The 2022 review study similarly found that taking regular ice baths after sprint training does not enhance the gains made due to the training.

Gains after strength exercise

The three review studies (2020, 2021, and 2022) agree that regular ice baths after strength training sessions actually reduce the gains made from those sessions.

To summarise:

👎You are shivering in vain if you take ice baths after exercise in the hope that it will make you fitter or stronger in the long run. And it may even interfere with your training gains if the goal of the sessions are to improve strength.

How to take ice baths for recovery

How long and how cold to ice bath

Most of the studies covered by the reviews used water temperatures ranging from 5 to 15 degrees Celsius (41 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit). The subjects were in the water from 10 minutes up to 20 minutes.

A 2022 review of the science that looked at how temperature and time in the water influenced the outcomes concluded that a shorter, colder stint in the ice bath worked better for muscle damage recovery after high-intensity exercise than a longer, less cold bath.

The same study also found that a shorter time in the ice bath had a marginally better effect for endurance recovery than a longer time.

Ice bath thermometers on Amazon - all do Celsius and Fahrenheit:

How deep?

The various research studies had their subjects immersed at various depths – from waist deep to all the way up to their necks.

A 2017 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology has some good news for those who balk at immersing everything but their heads in an ice bath.

The researchers made their subjects stand in an ice bath with only one leg after exercise. They found that there was an increase in the protein that aids muscle recovery (PGC-1α) in both legs. They therefore speculated that an ice bath affects the whole body and not just the parts that are immersed in the cold water.

So, if you are a runner or a cyclist or play a sport using mostly your legs, you likely don’t have to go deeper than waist deep.

And if you need to recover from exercise involving your upper body, the research suggests that your upper body will get at least some benefit from having only your lower body immersed.

An ice bath is not the only show in town for post-exercise recovery

Remember that there are many other ways to help you recover after exercise, including active recovery, massage, and compression garments.

For example, a 2018 study that did a meta-analysis of studies looking into post-exercise recovery methods found that massage was the most effective method for reducing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) – those muscle pains that kick in only a day or two after hard exercise) and feeling tired in general.

None of these methods are mutually exclusive, so use whatever works for you, and remember that good nutrition and ample sleep are also necessary for good post-exercise recovery. You can read our round-up of useful post-exercise recovery techniques here.

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Maryke Louw

About the Author

Maryke Louw is a chartered physiotherapist with more than 20 years' experience and a Master’s Degree in Sports Injury Management. Follow her on LinkedIn and ResearchGate.



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