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Ice baths have grown in popularity over recent years with them being easy to access or to make on your own. More and more people are using them to help with their training and other benefits such as improved mental health.

Whether you are using the ice bath at your local gym or at home it is important to understand how to use them safely as well as the science behind them.

What is an ice bath?

Contrary to popular belieft, an ice bath does not have to be a subzero affair. In fact, at temperatures near freezing we would only be able to survive 15-20 minutes before the brain and heart stop functioning. 

For an ice bath, the water should be around 10-15 degrees Celsius (around 50-60 Fahrenheit). This usually takes around 10 minutes to achieve if using a 3:1 water to ice ratio, or instantly if it is just ice in the tub.

What are the potential advantages of ice baths and what does the research say?

Helps with muscle soreness and recovery after exercise:

The aim of an ice bath is to “blunt” inflammation in the soft tissues and bone. This can make muscles feel less sore and therefore “more recovered”. There is contraversy around whether blunting inflammation after a heavy work out is determental to healing and repair, as natural inflammation is a key component of tissue regeneration. 

Helps with alterness and mental health:

Anyone who has taken an ice bath can voucher for the fact it is certainly a shock to the system. The cold temperature awakens our sympathetic nervous system and “flight or fight” response. This makes us feel energised and ready for action. There are some longer term studies to suggest that ice baths can help with conditions such as depression and anxiety and can boost serotonin levels. 

Helps with energy levels:

As described above, ice baths do awaken the senses which can make us feel energised. However, they do not add fuel into muscle or replenish energy stores in the body. An ice bath should certainly not replace a well considered balanced diet as a recovery strategy. 

Regulating your breathing:

With regularity of practice, ice baths and cold water emmersion in general have been shown to help people regulate breathing better and practice activating the “parasympathetic” nervous system when in a state of shock. Over time can teach us how to calm the body and mind. These benefits, however, can be easily found with meditation and breathing practices on land!

Boost metabolism and weight loss:

Ice baths have been shown by many studies to increase metabolism and improve body sugar and insulin control. It mainly does this by converting white fat cells (which build up fat) into brown fat cells (which break down glucose and fat) . 

Improve athletic and mental performance:

There is no currrent evidence that demonstrates improved athletic or mental performance (in any cohort of elite athletes) with the regular use of ice baths. Having said that, ice baths are a frequently used tool by all kinds of sportspeople (who swear by the practice) so it may be that the evidence just has not caught up yet. 

Other benefits of ice baths:

There have been other quoted benefits of ice baths including. All of these have limited scientific, but some anecdotal evidence.

  • Boosting the immune system
  • Improving circulation
  • Increasing libido
  • Improving cardiovascular health

Before you take the plunge…

It is important to highlight that even though ice baths are relatively safe they can be some medical conditions contraindicated. It is important to consult with a suitably qualified healthcare professional is you are not sure whether and ice bath is appropriate for you. Make sure you are in a safe enviromental before taking an ice bath, with at least one other person around and able to help if need be. 

If ice baths don’t appeal to you, cold showers also have some scientific and anecdotal benefit. Try turning down the temperature of your shower to one you can just about tolerate, then push this lower each day. If you love a hot bath, alternating hot-cold water emmersion also has some proven benefits so is worth considering. 

Lastly, ice baths should not be a replacement for good and simple recovery strategies such as healthy eating, sleep and following a sensible training programme. But, if you have the basics right and are looking for an extra edge, then it may be worth a try. Good luck!

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    Administration, LBSM

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    Medical Director, LBSM
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