Ice baths: do they help or hurt your training?

Sadly, the cold tub happy hour may be limiting your gains. 

Just like we did with stretching, our former best friend that we don’t even follow on Facebook any more, we’re starting to focus more and more on those little imperfections of the ice bath.

New research published yesterday provides some evidence that compared to active recovery, ice baths after strength training may slightly impair strength gains.

I haven’t seen the full study, so I can’t really comment on its scientific merits. But I do know that the ice bath studies follow a familiar pattern in research, the health and fitness kind that I’m skeptical of. Here’s how it works: a complex question like this is investigated, and (surprise!) half the results indicate a benefit, and half show either an impairment or no improvement. So in order to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong, scientists need to reduce that big picture question into smaller parts.

This study has been reduced to the relationship between post-strength training ice baths and cellular changes in muscles. It found that in young, active men, ice baths reduce the growth of muscle fibers in response to strength training via the impairment of some key cellular mechanisms.

This is a good study. But apply its results with caution. If all you do is resistance training, a post-workout ice bath will be completely useless, and may impair your body’s natural recovery and adaptation processes. And it shouldn’t help! There’s really no physiological rationale that says making an exercised muscle cold will help it get stronger.

However, there is reason to believe that cryotherapy helps with recovery from long-term endurance training, or at least won’t impair it. There’s plenty of evidence to support that, especially in competitive athletes.

The problem, of course, is that most athletes that train for endurance events are also strength training. Does that mean that the ice bath that’s helping your endurance training is also hurting your strength training?

Perhaps. It’s against the laws of nature to max out all aspects of fitness. You have to prioritize your training based on strengths and weaknesses. Unless you’re one of those stud-muffin cycling machines that may or may not be using some incredibly advanced doping techniques, you can’t have both Earth-shaking power and ultra-marathon endurance.

Stick with your goals:

If you want bigger muscles, skip the cold tub.

If you want your joints, bones, and nervous system to recover from endurance training, an ice bath may be beneficial.

And if you want to make friends and you really don’t care about recovery, get in that cold tub happy hour!

Photo credit: Dhilung Kirat/Flickr Creative commons