Cold showers and ice baths have long been a way for people, especially athletes, to help their bodies recover from workouts.
Cold showers have supposed benefits such as soothing itchy skin, increasing circulation, improving alertness and lessening muscle soreness. Similarly, ice baths remain a common way for athletes to wind down after training, especially for those in endurance sports.
Some California Baptist University athletes use ice baths after training as a method of expediting recovery. Robert Moseley, senior computer science major and captain of the CBU swim and dive team, said he takes 15-minute ice baths after intense training days to help him recover more quickly, which allows him to return to difficult training sooner.
“I take ice baths when I am particularly sore because they help alleviate some of the pain caused by training and reduce any inflammation that you might have as a result of pushing your body that hard,” Moseley said. “Typically, athletes should expect to be less sore the day after intense training if they took an ice bath.”
The idea of ice baths is to reduce inflammation by slowing circulation, leading to less muscle pain. Alonzo Escobedo, senior public health major and member of the CBU swim team, said he takes ice baths to help prepare him for the next day of training.
“(They) help me come back the next morning fresh and ready to take on the rest of the week,” Escobedo said. “Ice baths will increase my performance in the pool by helping soreness and tightness.”
Although ice baths and cold water immersion remain a widely used practice among athletes, recent research has not supported the benefits of ice baths. While some scientists still support the idea that ice baths can help ease inflammation and pain and expedite muscle repair, some studies have displayed that ice baths appear largely ineffective in accomplishing their supposed benefits.
Dr. Trevor Gillum, professor of kinesiology and program director of exercise science, said the current research into cold water immersion points toward little or no benefit for athletes.
“Like anything in research, there is a lot of different data to point in a lot of different directions,” Gillum said. “None of the directions point to an overwhelmingly encouraging response that they may be beneficial. There are some studies that will show there is a small benefit, but that is about as far as anyone will go.”
Gillum said some studies even venture to suggest ice baths can harm athletic performance. In fact, according to a 2015 study on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website, ice baths might even reduce muscle growth. Gillum said that, ultimately, the decision of whether or not to use ice baths depends on the type of athlete and the coach.
Although scientific studies indicate that ice baths may be ineffective, many athletes still perceive a clear benefit from integrating them into their routines. Gillum said that, from this perspective, ice baths might benefit athletes through a placebo effect.
“There was a good study not too long ago that looked at just that,” Gillum said. “Most of the physiology pointed to either no effect or even a harmful effect. One person looked at the psychological effect, and what they did is they had ice baths in one condition and in the other condition they had warmer water, but they were told a supplement was put in the water to help muscles recover. Really, all it was was mild detergent to make it feel a little different.”
“As the study was described to them, they said (they) think this warm water with the analgesic effect will improve recovery. What they found was if you thought it worked, then it would work. If you thought the ice baths would work, then it worked. Like all things with recovery, like all things in the supplement world, we can’t get away from the placebo effect. We can’t get away from the power of the mind.”
For non-athletes, Gillum said he has not seen much empirical research into the benefits of cold showers, though some people advocate that they have benefits. He said it is difficult to make a blanket recommendation for all people since people respond to stimuli in different ways.
Regardless of whether or not cold water immersion is effective from a research standpoint, Gillum said those who use cold water immersion should follow the direction of coaches and analyze what works for them based on physiological and psychological benefits.
“With the data in our hands, I am not convinced it is really going to do anything for you,” Gillum said. “I would not recommend it for the average CBU student, and for the athlete, they are going to be primarily dictated by what their coaches say.”