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A Defense for Ice Baths?

Ice baths have been a controversial topic in sports.  Despite their long history in the training room, the formal evidence has been mixed on their effectiveness.  Many athletes swear by them for recovery while others who detest the frigid waters welcome any excuse to avoid them.

One recent study gives us pause before permanently emptying the cold tub.  Dunne (2013) studied nine trained endurance runners and put them through two exhaustive running efforts on three separate occasions.  Each effort was separated by fifteen minutes and involved three different possible conditions: seated rest with no cold water, immersion at hip level at 8°C, and hip level immersion at 15°C. 

The greatest performance improvements occurred in comparing 8°C immersion with the control condition (no immersion).  In other words, subjects significantly increased their time to failure (ran longer!) in the second trial as compared to the first after the 8°C immersion.  There was no significant difference comparing the control with 15°C (too warm for an effect?), nor was there a difference comparing the two immersive conditions with each other.  Only in the control condition with no immersion did the runners run shorter in the second run than in the first.    

It’s unclear what mechanism were behind these improvements, as blood lactate, running economy, and VO2 were unchanged by the immersion conditions.  Intestinal temperature and heart rate were lower in the second trial during both immersive conditions, but at the conclusion of the second trial at failure, neither of these variables changed between conditions.  Another remaining question is whether these potential benefits would persist in the more common usage for ice baths after workouts with several hours (or days) until the next session. 

Interestingly, these results run somewhat counter to intuition, as we often think to “stay warm” between interval efforts.  And anecdotally, those of us who have taken ice baths observe that several minutes in the cold tub can leave the legs feeling stiff.  Yet in this study, neither of those concerns appears to have impaired the runners from improving after the immersion, particularly the 8°C condition. 

If nothing else, these results simply indicate we still don’t have all the answers in this area.  However, the most important metric (performance) did change significantly after the immersion intervention in this study.    

Reference

Dunne A, Crampton D, Egaña M.  Effect of post-exercise hydrotherapy water temperature on subsequent exhaustive running performance in normothermic conditions.  J Sci Med Sport. 2012 Dec 13. pii: S1440-2440(12)01095-X. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2012.11.884. [Epub ahead of print]

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