Here’s another question that popped up in my inbox, this time on the subject of whether or not it’s a good idea to immerse yourself in a tub of cold water after a workout:
“One thing I’ve tried to find more about is cold water immersion after training and whether it’s actually beneficial or not. I see a lot of athletes and celebrities doing it to help with recovery. Will it help?”
The research on post-exercise cold water immersion is a bit of a mixed bag.
There is evidence to show that cold water immersion can help reduce post-exercise muscle soreness , improve your mood, enhance the adaptations to endurance training , and accelerate recovery during periods of intense training .
However, there’s also some emerging research to suggest that cold exposure after training may interfere with gains in strength and size.
In one study, Australian researchers took a group of 21 volunteers and got them to train their legs twice a week for a total of 12 weeks .
Half the group jumped into an ice bath for 10 minutes after their workout. The other half spent the same amount of time cycling on a stationary bike.
Although both groups gained muscle, subjects who cycled for 10 minutes after training made three times greater gains in muscle mass compared with those in the ice bath group.
Gains in strength were also a lot smaller in the cold water immersion group.
Why did the ice bath put the brakes on muscular gains?
For one, cold water immersion has the effect of reducing muscle blood flow, which could reduce the synthesis of new muscle protein.
Cold water immersion also suppresses and/or delays post-training changes in satellite cell activity. Satellite cells surround your muscle fibers, and play a key role in muscle growth.
According to the researchers, this study offers the “strongest evidence to date that using cold water immersion on a regular basis may interfere with training adaptations.”
Here’s what Dr Steve Ingham, who has worked with many Olympic medal winners, has to say on the subject in his excellent book How to Support a Champion:
“Jumping in a bath, wheelie bin or specialised inflatable dinghy type thingy is still in common practice and it is something I continue to recommend to top athletes. However, I only recommend it for in- or post-competition recovery, where quick turnaround of recovery is the priority.
“The body is smart. If you give it a stimulus to change, it needs time to let that stimulus resonate, but if you present another stimulus it can get confused. With the presentation of cold through ice baths you are interrupting and blunting the cascade of response and so there is every chance that the mechanisms of adaptation will simply shrug their shoulders and not bother to improve nearly as much.”
Journalist Mark McClusky makes a similar point in his New York Times bestseller Faster, Higher, Stronger:
“There is some sense in elite circles that during periods of training, it might be better to forgo using too many recovery protocols. A scientist at the English Institute of Sport, Jonathan Leeder, has written about the possibility that decreasing stress on the body through things like ice baths will necessarily decrease the beneficial adaptations from training. It might make the most sense for an athlete’s progress to save recovery exercises for competitive periods, when they’re focused on maintaining capabilities, not increasing them.”
In other words, cold water immersion might be useful in cases where rapid recovery is required.
But if you want to make your muscles bigger and stronger, it may very well hurt your results if used on a regular basis as part of your training.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORChristian Finn is the nation’s leading authority on science-based, joint-friendly ways to build muscle. A former "trainer to the trainers," he holds a masters degree in exercise science, and has been featured in or contributed to major media on two continents, including the BBC and Sunday Times in the U.K. and Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness in the U.S.
1. Roberts LA, Raastad T, Markworth JF, Figueiredo VC, Egner IM, Shield A, Cameron-Smith D, Coombes JS, Peake JM2. (2015). Post-exercise cold water immersion attenuates acute anabolic signalling and long-term adaptations in muscle to strength training. Journal of Physiology, 593, 4285-4301
2. Machado AF, Ferreira PH, Micheletti JK, de Almeida AC, Lemes R, Vanderlei FM, Netto Junior J, Pastre CM. (2016). 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
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