Ice cold baths are the hot new trend. You may have seen your favorite athletes and social media fitness influencers doing it – taking a dip in a bucket or pool filled with ice, wading through chunks of ice to take a brisk winter swim in the river. But why take an ice bath? What are the supposed benefits, and are they backed by science?

What is an ice bath?

Ice baths are a type of Cold Water Immersion (CWI) therapy, which falls under the wider umbrella of cryotherapy, or cold therapy. Ice baths may involve the immersion of the entire body, or just a target area. While ice baths may be the most exciting and shocking example of cold water immersion in popular media today, cold showers are often used as a way to build tolerance to the cold, or as a less extreme version of cold immersion.

Ice baths have been popularized in recent years by extreme athlete “Iceman” Wim Hof, but cold has been documented as a therapeutic treatment for centuries. Yes – you read that right. The Edwin Smith Papyrus shows that as far back as 3500BC, humans have been using cold therapies to heal. In our modern era, cold therapy has regularly been the subject of scientific study since the 1960s. Nowadays, athletes and weekend warriors alike make use of cold water immersion and often alternate with heat from saunas or hot tubs to try and maximize recovery potential.

Why take an ice bath?

The claimed benefits for cold training and ice baths are numerous – but some are more compelling than others. Here are a few of the most promising in scientific studies.

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) recovery
This is easily the most common use of ice baths and cold therapy you will see – but the studies have yielded some interesting results. Bottom line – cold therapy does shorten post workout pain, or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), but it doesn’t always make a measurable difference. The best application of cold therapy post-workout is to use very cold temperatures for a short period of time, so immersion in an ice bath would be the best application.

Cold showers, cold packs, and other kinds of cold therapy after a strenuous workout may reduce the perception of pain, but they won’t necessarily reduce the length of time you experience DOMS. Is it worth it to you to take a full ice bath to reduce soreness? It might be if you need to get back up and hit the field, or the gym, or the road again the next day. For the average person, this may not matter, but for an individual training for an endurance event, or a high level athlete, this could be a huge difference maker.

Athletic performance and recovery
This is related to post-workout soreness, but there are some additional nuances. In a study on rugby players, cold training was found to hinder athletic performance directly after application, but 12 hours after the application of the therapy, performance tests showed an increase in their performance ability.

A similar study looked at high level volleyball players and how a long term cold therapy plan would affect their performance over the course of weeks. At first, little to no change was evident in their performance metrics, but after 16 days, the athletes who were undergoing cold immersion showed a measurable increase in jump height and countermovement speed. What this means for us is that, like many parts of a fitness routine, you need to do it consistently for a while before you might notice any big changes.

Improved mental state
Want to see results faster? Then you will be interested to know that studies have shown mood improvement in as little as one cold water immersion session. Cold therapy stresses the body just enough to “crowd out” and disrupt unhealthy brain patterns, and has been suggested as a long-term supplemental treatment for depression and other psychosomatic illnesses.

In addition to these immediate benefits, exposure to cold over time causes an increase in the concentration of dopamine and noradrenaline in our brain, while cortisol levels appear to decrease. In other words, cold therapy has been observed to improve our mood and sense of wellbeing on a chemical level.

Whether the cold’s impact on mood state is “all in your head” or an actual physiological reaction is still being studied, but either way, it does seem to be a great tool for many individuals who are looking to reduce stress.

Why should you NOT take an ice bath?

As many benefits as there could be for taking an ice bath or engaging in cold training, it is important to note that it can also be dangerous for certain individuals, and there are some precautions that everyone should take before engaging in cold training.

Cold exposure reduces your ability to sense pain, which means that if something goes wrong – you cut your foot while walking out in the river for example – you may be less likely to notice. If you swim outdoors in the winter, drowning becomes a risk. Signs of hypothermia are something you’ll want to keep an eye out for. In addition to these general warnings – the following conditions are major contraindications for cold training:

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Hyper sensitivity to cold
  • Impaired circulation
  • Peripheral vascular disease

In addition to safety concerns surrounding cold training, you may also want to avoid it if your goals involve maximal strength and hypertrophy (muscle size increase). Cold immersion and cold therapy do not hinder growth of the muscles, but they have been shown to slow it.

If you decide to give cold training a try, always do so responsibly! Consult with your doctor before starting cold therapy, and if you plan to make outdoor cold immersion a part of your practice, remember to bring a buddy!

What you need to know

If you scan the internet for “why take an ice bath” and “what are the benefits of cold therapy” you’ll find thousands of articles to wile away the hours. You’ll find list after list telling you that cold training can increase libido, improve your sleep, increase your immunity, lengthen your memory, speed your metabolism and burn more fat, and make you generally indestructible.

There are some quality studies out there that indicate that some of these claims may even be true – but these studies are a little more spread out, and some of them don’t have as much data to draw from. There is some solid evidence that ice baths and cold training can indeed improve your life in some way and it could be worth trying if you are inclined. The best way to find out if it can improve your life is to give it a try yourself!

While cold training has many possible benefits – it remains a relatively high risk therapy, and may be contraindicated for you. Even if it is safe for you to practice, it puts a lot of stress on your body and can feel extremely uncomfortable for most people. You’ll have to decide for yourself if the possible benefits outweigh the risks and challenges. If you do decide that you’d like to dip your toe into cold therapy, it’s always best to take it slow and allow your body to adapt over time. Be safe, and have fun!

Give it a try

Here’s some ways you can give cold training a try:

  • Try taking a cold shower. Start warm, then go cold. Build up your resistance over time.
  • Try adding breathing exercises before your cold shower.
  • Find a buddy and go for a plunge. Lakes, rivers, the ocean, and events like the Polar Plunge are all fun ways to start outdoor swimming. Try it year round and see how your body adapts.
  • Go for a full ice bath. If you’re feeling ready, get a buddy, fill a tub with cold water and ice, and give it a try for yourself.

Hyatt Strength + Wellness is a team of certified, enthusiastic and innovative personal trainers in Portland, Oregon. Get in touch with us by emailing Go@HyattGym.com.


References

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Moore, E., Fuller, J.T., Buckley, J.D. et al. 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 Med 52, 1667–1688 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-022-01644-9

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Garcia CA, da Mota GR, Marocolo M. Cold Water Immersion is Acutely Detrimental but Increases Performance Post-12 h in Rugby Players. Int J Sports Med. 2016 Jul;37(8):619-24. doi: 10.1055/s-0035-1565200. Epub 2016 May 2. PMID: 27136509.

Malta, E.S., Dutra, Y.M., Broatch, J.R. et al. The Effects of Regular Cold-Water Immersion Use on Training-Induced Changes in Strength and Endurance Performance: A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis. Sports Med 51, 161–174 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-020-01362-0

Tavares F, Simões M, Matos B, Smith TB, Driller M. The Acute and Longer-Term Effects of Cold Water Immersion in Highly-Trained Volleyball Athletes During an Intense Training Block. Front Sports Act Living. 2020 Oct 19;2:568420. doi: 10.3389/fspor.2020.568420. PMID: 33345125; PMCID: PMC7739613.