Last Updated on February 20, 2023 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
The following article was written by Karen Newby, BSc, MPT. Karen is a physiotherapist and UESCA certified running coach based out of Squamish, BC, with over 16 years of experience. Her clinical interests include running injury rehabilitation and post-surgical orthopedic injury rehab.
The idea of an ice bath after running as a means to aid in recovery after an intense workout is not a novel idea for athletes. We have all seen photos of elite runners or professional athletes using this modality after a workout or race.
But do ice baths actually do anything to promote post exercise recovery?
Research supporting the use of cold water immersion has been mixed, with results supporting and negating any benefits. A quick search on Google can be quite confusing, so how can one figure out whether cold water therapy is providing any benefit? Or, are ice baths just an unnecessary discomfort?
This post will cover:
- What is an ice bath?
- Commonly cited ice baths benefits
- Do ice baths really work? What the research tells us
- The risks of ice baths
- How to take a post-workout ice bath at home
Disclaimer: This article is provided for informational purposes only. If you are dealing with an injury or other health conditions, we recommend you follow up with a qualified medical professional.
What is an Ice Bath, and How Does it Work? Cold water immersion explained.
An ice bath, or cold water immersion, is a recovery method utilized by athletes within the first few minutes to few hours post training, for the purpose of aiding in recovery and reducing muscle pain after a tough workout.
An ice bath is typically done in a tub of some sort filled with water and ice, with the water temperature ranging from 50-60°F (10-15°C) for the purpose of aiding in recovery and reducing muscle pain after a tough workout.
To get the most potent effect from an ice bath, athletes should immerse themselves in the bath up to their neck if able to tolerate it.
That being said, if the idea of submerging your whole body sounds close to impossible to do, there can still be benefit to athletes just dipping in up to their waist.
In general, immersion in an ice bath will have a greater impact than a cold shower, however, an ice bath may not be accessible to everyone so a cold shower is not a bad second option.
What Are the Benefits of Taking an Ice Bath After Running?
Climbing into icy water after a tough workout isn’t an easy thing to do. However, the purported benefits of taking an ice bath after running – such as minimizing muscle pain to speeding up recovery time – can be motivation enough to convince elite athletes and everyday marathon runners alike to jump into a tub full of ice cubes.
1. Speed Up The Recovery Process
The concept of using ice baths after a workout is to aid in decreasing inflammation, muscle soreness and pain, thereby aiding in a faster recovery which in turn can allow you to train harder more often.
After any intense bout of exercise, muscle fibers will experience microtrauma. This tissue breakdown is a normal stress response to the load placed on the muscle tissue, and is a stimulant to repair and strengthen the muscle.
When immersed in an ice bath the cold temperature and the hydrostatic pressure from the water will cause constriction of the blood vessels, decrease blood flow, decrease swelling, and slow down metabolic activity. This can help reduce swelling, and slow tissue breakdown.
2. Release Catecholamines
When we put our bodies deliberately in a cold environment, the ice bath, our bodies will respond to the stress by releasing norepinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine (Sramek et al., 2000).
These are some of the chemical neurotransmitters our body releases when we experience the “runner’s high“. Release of these hormones may be helpful in improving mood and enhance our perception of recovery.
3. Improve Sleep
Chauvine et al. (2021) published a study looking at the effects of whole and partial cold water immersion on the sleep patterns of 12 male endurance runners.
The results of the study showed that both whole and partial cold water immersion after a high-intensity, intermittent running exercise largely decreased sleep arousals.
Because sleep is an integral part of the body’s recovery process, improving sleep with post-workout ice bath may indirectly speed up recovery time.
4. Increase Mental Toughness
Another potential benefit of using ice baths is to improve resilience or mental toughness.
For most of us, as soon as you dip your toe into that bath, your mind will be screaming at you to not go any further. Your mind can talk you out of facing challenges and overcoming that can be a valuable skill.
And we all know, with running, having mental toughness can be a game changer.
5. Immune System Response
An improved immune system may be another one of the benefits of cold water immersion.
There are a number of small studies (Dugué & Leppänen , Janský et al. ) demonstrating that regular cold water immersion resulted in an increase in plasma concentration of cytokines and white blood cells.
This leads researchers to hypothesize that the stress of exposure from ice water immersion may active the body’s immune system response, and speed up muscle recovery.
Conflicting Evidence Behind Ice Baths
Albeit there are plenty of articles discussing this topic, the research examining the benefits of ice baths have been conflicting.
It can be challenging to find multiple scientific studies with large sample sizes studying the same or similar variables such as activity type and participants age or gender.
Another challenge to extrapolating the data is that ice bath protocols can vary – temperature of water, duration of the ice bath, frequency of the baths, and depth of immersion.
The Placebo Effect
A well established effect of ice baths is the release of dopamine afterwards. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that has an impact on our mood, contributing to feelings of motivation, happiness and focus.
A study by Sramek et al. (2000) showed a 250% increase in dopamine levels after participants spent one hour in a 14°C bath. Their study had a small sample size, only studied men and spent an unrealistic amount of time in the bath (one hour). However it does show support for the powerful mood enhancing impact an ice bath can potentially have.
The argument that any benefit from an ice bath is due to placebo could be related to this mood enhancing impact of dopamine release.
Should the Inflammation Response be Hindered?
One important counter argument to the use of ice of ice baths during recovery is the question of whether or not we are reducing the necessary inflammatory response that is needed to signal cellular remodeling and repair.
Without that same inflammatory response there may be less adaptation gained from the training stress on the body.
In short: inflammation is a normal and necessary part of the healing process.
Ice Baths and Muscular Strength
Moore et al. (2022) have recently published a systematic review and meta analysis that looked at 52 randomized control trials comparing the effect of cold water immersion and passive recovery (doing nothing) after exercise.
They found a statistically significant decrease in circulating creatine kinase (CK) with participants that immersed in an ice bath after high intensity exercise compared with those who did passive recovery. Elevated creatine kinase levels in the blood can be an indication of muscle damage after a workout.
Their research found that ice baths were more likely to have a positive impact on muscle power, decreased delayed-onset muscle soreness and improved perception of recovery after high intensity exercise when compared to passive recovery.
Ice baths did not, however, make any significant difference on muscle strength measurements after high intensity exercise.
Roberts et al. (2015) compared a ten minute ice bath post workout to active recovery strategies (low intensity stationary bike) after a strength training protocol. They did two separate studies with a sample size of 21 and 9 men. Their results showed an increase in muscle mass and strength in the group that participated in the active recovery but not in the ice bath group.
This result falls in line with the research by Moore et al. (2022) stating that ice baths are not beneficial in increasing muscle strength and bulk.
From their research it suggests that ice baths do not help if the goal of your workout is to increase muscle bulk and strength. However, for us runners, their research does suggest jumping in an ice bath right after a hard run may improve recovery from that hard workout.
What are the Risks of Ice Baths after Running?
Using an ice bath for recovery does not come without some risks. Without stating the obvious, there is a risk of developing frostbite or hypothermia, when the core body temperature drops too low.
If you have a history of peripheral neuropathy, diabetes, cardiovascular disease or other known heart conditions, or if you are pregnant, you should consult with a medical professional before taking an ice bath.
Want to give an ice bath a try? Here are 4 Expert Tips:
Keen to try a post-workout ice bath? Keep the following tips in mind before taking your first cold plunge:
1. Start Early in Your Training Cycle
Just like any change to your running routine, it’s best to experiment with it well before your next race.
My suggestion would be to try it out early in your training and if you’re feeling a benefit from it, ramp up the number of sessions as your training gets more intense to reap any benefits for a faster recovery between workouts.
2. How Cold Should an Ice Bath Be?
Ideal temperatures of the ice bath appear to be between 50-60 degrees fahrenheit (10-15°C). Keep in mind, colder water isn’t necessarily better.
A study from Machado et al. (2016) looked at various temperatures for ice baths, and found the greatest ice bath benefits occurred in this range.
Researches have stated that the lower temperature baths may be regarded by the body as a noxious stimulus and have adverse reactions. Further, colder water increases safety concerns – such as the risk of hypothermia, hyperventilation and loss of consciousness.
Higher temperatures have been cited to not produce the same results seen in the 50-60°F (10-15°C)temperature range.
3. How Long Should An Ice Bath Be?
Try to hang in there for 10-15 minutes of immersion if you can. You may need to build up to it gradually, starting over a shorter time frame and warmer water.
4. Listen to Your Body
Recognize your own threshold, do not try to compete with others, listen to your own body signals. Getting in will likely be the hardest part of ice water immersion. Try to just get right in rather than dipping your toes slowly and drawing it out.
The takeaway for the use of ice baths are that they are not recommended if your goals are strength gains and increasing muscle bulk but may be helpful in reducing soreness and therefore potentially a faster recovery between workouts.
If you want to try an ice bath after running, check with your health professional first to ensure there are no contraindications to you using one and do it in a controlled environment. It is something you may need to gradually build up to in temperature and time but might be worth trying out if you’re keen to take the plunge.
What to Read Next:
If you enjoyed this post, you may want to check out the following articles on related topics:
- Epsom Salt Bath For Post Run Soreness: Do They Really Work?
- Why Runners Respond Differently To Training: 8 Factors Affecting Adaptation & Performance
- Compression Socks For Running: Do They Work, And Do You Really Need Them?
Bleakley, C., McDonough, S., Gardner, E., Baxter, G.D., Hopkins, J.T., & Davison, G.W. (2012). Cold-water immersion (cryotherapy) for preventing and treating muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2.
Chauvineau, M., Pasquier, F., Guyot, V., Aloulou, A., & Nedelec, M. (2021). Effect of the Depth of Cold Water Immersion on Sleep Architecture and Recovery Among Well-Trained Male Endurance Runners. Frontiers in sports and active living, 3, 659990. https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2021.659990
Dugué, B., & Leppänen, E. (2000). Adaptation related to cytokines in man: effects of regular swimming in ice-cold water. Clinical physiology (Oxford, England), 20(2), 114–121. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-2281.2000.00235.x
Janský, L., Pospísilová, D., Honzová, S., Ulicný, B., Srámek, P., Zeman, V., & Kamínková, J. (1996). Immune system of cold-exposed and cold-adapted humans. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology, 72(5-6), 445–450. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00242274
Machado, A.F., Ferreira, P.H., Micheletti, J.K., Castilho de Almeida, A., Lemes, I.R., Vanderlei, F.M., Netto Junior, J. & Pastre, C.M. (2019). Can water temperature and immersion time influence the effect of cold water immersion on muscle soreness? A systematic review and meta-analysis.Sports Medicine, 46, 503-514.
Moore, E., Fuller, J.T., Buckley, J.D., Saunders, S., Halson, S.L., Broatch, J.R., & Bellenger, C. (2022). Impact of cold-water immersion compared with passive recovery following a single bout of strenuous exercise on athletic performance in physically active participants: a systematic review with meta-analysis and meta-regression. Sports Medicine, 52,1667-1688.
Roberts, L.A., Raastad, T., Markworth, J.F., Figueiredo, V.C., Egner, I.M., Shield, A., Cameron-Smith, D., Coombes, J.S., & Peake, J.M. (2015). Post-exercise cold water immersion attenuates acute anabolic signalling and long-term adaptations in muscle to strength training. Journal of Physiology, 593(18), 4285-4301.
Sramek, P., Simeckova, M., Jansky, L., Savilkova, J., & Vybiral, S. (2000). Human physiological responses to immersion into water of different temperatures. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 81,436-442.
Karen is a physiotherapist and UESCA certified running coach based out of Squamish, BC, with over 16 years of experience. Her clinical interests include running injury rehabilitation and post-surgical orthopedic injury rehab. Karen has been running for over 20 years from 5kms to ultradistances. She is a mom to two active kids and spends her free time running, skiing, or running after her kids.