Is ice nice?

Sports people, especially professional sports people, do all sorts of outlandish things to maximise their performance. Sometimes the things they do are none too savoury and even less healthy, but sometimes what they do is relatively benign if occasionally bizarre. One very common sports recovery practice, that doesn’t do anything to make the lay athlete envy the professional, is to leap into an ice bath immediately after a game in order to aid recovery. No pain, no gain they say but according to new research ice baths may offer pain without the gain you would expect.

Anybody who works out will know that delayed onset muscle soreness is part of the process. It happens because micro-trauma in the muscle causes inflammation. Ice baths or other types of cold therapy done after training or playing promise to speed recovery so you can get back to doing hard workouts faster. However, it looks as though they may actually reduce performance gains, particularly if building muscle is the aim.

In a new study researchers from the University of Queensland and the Queensland University of Technology had healthy, physically active men undertake strength training for two days a week for 12 weeks. Half of the group had a ten-minute post-workout ice bath at 10 degrees Celsius. The other half had a ten minute warm down on an exercise bike.

After 12 weeks both muscle strength and muscle mass had increased more in the warm down group than in the ice bath group. A second study took muscle biopsies from men after they had exercised and then had an ice bath or warm down. This showed after an ice bath the activity of satellite cells (cells similar to stem cells) and pathways involved in building bigger and stronger muscles were reduced for up to two days.

So ice baths were found to substantially reduce long term muscle gains. This might be happening because of a reduction in blood flow to the muscle through the icy temperatures.

Certainly ice baths do reduce soreness, so if the aim is to be able to workout again soon or if you are an athlete at the “finals” time of your season and you need to perform again in a short time frame then icing may help. However, if you want to build muscle then you can put the idea of an ice bath…well, on ice.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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