a tub of ice water after exercise – a surprisingly popular post-workout regime
used by athletes to reduce inflammation and speed recovery – is time consuming
and bone-achingly painful. New research from the University of New Hampshire
finds that it may not be effective, either.
In a study
published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers report
that research subjects who engaged in post-exercise cryotherapy, or ice baths,
showed no mitigation of post-exercise strength loss or decreased soreness
compared to a control group.
help you feel better and it doesn’t help you perform better,” says lead
researcher Naomi Crystal. “Ice baths are very popular as a treatment, but
the research is really mixed as to whether they’re beneficial. They’re
miserable. If it doesn’t work, you don’t want to waste your time.”
was Crystal’s master’s degree thesis; co-authors are UNH associate professor of
kinesiology Dain LaRoche, assistant professor of kinesiology Summer Cook, and
associate professor of molecular, cellular and biomedical sciences Dave Townson.
study, the researchers recruited 20 recreationally active college-age men to
run for 40 minutes downhill at a gradient of 10%. Half the subjects then
submitted to a 20-minute ice bath, standing in a tall recycling bin filled with
thigh-high ice water cooled to a chilly five degrees Celsius (40 degrees
Fahrenheit). “That’s really cold,” Crystal admits. “I had some guys close to
interested in the ice bath’s effect on soreness, strength, swelling and
inflammation. The researchers conducted three post-exercise measures, taken at
intervals from one hour to three days: they measured the subjects’ perceived
soreness while walking down stairs; tested quadriceps strength on a resistance
machine; measured thigh circumference; and looked at the concentration of
plasma chemokine ligand 2 (CCL2), a marker for inflammation, in blood samples.
Results of the study
researchers found no difference in strength or perceived soreness between the
subjects who took ice baths and the control group. Thigh circumference did not
change significantly for any of the subjects after the run.
between the two groups’ CCL2 concentrations, while not statistically
significant, showed a trend toward lower concentrations in the cryotherapy
subjects, although this measure varied greatly between the subjects. “The study
suggested that there might have been a mild reduction in inflammation, but it
wasn’t conclusive,” says LaRoche, who was Crystal’s advisor.
The lack of
difference between the control and the cryotherapy group surprised the
researchers. “I expected to see an improvement in soreness, an improvement in
strength with the ice bath,” says Crystal. She notes that research on ice baths
has produced a range of results, in part because there’s no standard protocol
for the treatment.
commends Crystal’s study design for using biochemical, physical, and subjective
measures, an approach that crossed departmental lines to involve co-authors
from her department as well as Townson, from the College of Life Sciences and
Agriculture. “It had a variety of ways of looking at whether ice baths were
effective or not,” he says.
researchers state that their study does not support the use of cryotherapy for
recovery from exercise, Crystal’s personal view is more moderated. “I’m not
convinced that it doesn’t help at all,” she says. “Use them sparingly. Use them
in tournament situations, use them with an athlete who has done something
extraordinary. But for day-to-day athletes, I wouldn’t recommend them. They’re
painful, and they’re time consuming.”
Picture: Ice bath from Shutterstock