Maybe it was your first workout in months or maybe it was a particularly tough boot-camp class with that one instructor who seems to take pleasure in other peoples’ pain. Either way, you’re going to be hurting tomorrow. Could an ice bath help? Let’s find out.
First of all, ice baths: Why? The theory is that intense exercise causes tiny tears in your muscle fibers (which aren’t a bad thing; they ultimately help strengthen muscles). But, these tears can cause delayed onset muscles soreness (DOMS), a wordy way to say soreness. Proponents of ice baths say they constrict blood vessels and flush lactic acid out of the affected tissues and reduce swelling and tissue breakdown. Essentially, they can minimize soreness and aid in recovery.
The day I tried an ice bath, I combined the two scenarios described above. After slacking on workouts over the holidays, I headed to my favorite circuit-style fitness class (hey, Fhitting Room) and resigned myself to feeling sore after my first intense gym session of 2019.
Because this particular studio doesn’t have ice baths, I went the DIY route. Meaning, I went to Duane Reade and bought a couple bags of ice, filled my bath tub a little less than half the way up with cold water and then added the ice. *Thrifty*
OK, so how was it?
I’ve taken ice baths before, but I was much younger and in much better shape than I am now. Still, I knew what I was getting into. If you’ve ever plunged your semi-naked body into a small pool of near-freezing water, you know that right off the bat it takes your breath away. Not in an I just saw Idris Elba walking down the street in the West Village way, but in an I think I might die, tell my family I love them way.
I sat in the bath for about 15 minutes (ten to 20 minutes is typically recommended). The first four or so minutes—not going to lie—suck. After you get over the literal shock, you can’t really feel anything. After the 15 minutes were up, I quickly jumped out of the bath, wrapped myself in my warmest robe and went straight to my bed to lay under the covers for about 20 minutes.
The next morning, I was sore, but not quite as sore as I was expecting to be. Was it the ice bath or was it just a placebo effect? I’m not sure, and the research available isn’t super informative either.
One study published in the Journal of Physiology found that icing muscles immediately after intense exercise does suppress inflammation, but also hinders muscle fiber growth (not great for people looking to grow muscle).
Another study, in The International Journal of Research in Exercise Physiology found that taking an ice bath is effective at promoting recovery—whether you do it immediately after working out or up to two hours later.
The benefits of an ice bath could also depend on what kind of workout you’re doing. A review in the journal Sports Medicine concluded that ice baths might lessen muscle damage from high-intensity interval training but aren’t likely to have much effect after lower-intensity, strength-style workouts.
Basically, the research is all over the place. None of the studies advised against taking ice baths, though, so if you’re interested, we’d recommend trying it. If you feel better, great. If not, that’s fine as well.
If nothing else, you will feel like a badass athlete for about six minutes once your body goes numb.