Cold water immersion and recovery

It is currently en vogue for athletes to use “ice baths” after exercise as they are supposed to improve recovery after exercise. I’m sure you have all seen and heard Paula Radcliffe promote the benefits of using ice baths. However how do you know if an ice bath is good for you after training and after the half marathon? More importantly how can you do these at home?


There are some misconceptions around ice baths or what is otherwise known as cold water immersion (CWI). You do not have to throw 10kg of ice into a bath of water and sit there for 10 minutes shivering in pain to benefit from CWI. The water temperature only needs to be cold (<15 degrees C) and cold water from a tap, with perhaps a few ice cubes thrown in will suffice. You can stay in the ice bath for up to 15 minutes or do contrast bathing where you do CWI for 90 seconds, then warm shower for 90 seconds and this for up to 15 minutes.


In healthy individuals CWI induces substantial changes in numerous bodily systems. You will get a cold shock, which will induce:


  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Decreased blood flow to the brain
  • Decreased respiratory minute volume
  • Decreased skin temperature


This can be useful for drawing blood out of the extremities and back to the core. This helps to remove waste and toxins from the working muscles. When you warm shower or simple get out of the cold water and warm up you will have an increased blood flow back to the extremities which carries fresh blood and oxygen back to the muscle to aid recovery.


CWI and contrast bathing have been found to be more effective than doing a passive recovery (which means doing nothing), but no more effective than compression socks or an active recovery. So it might be wise to combine you CWI with an active recovery and compression socks.


Using CWI will not improve your performance as such as they have been shown to provide no improvements in speed or power, but they have been shown to aid recovery and restore maximal strength and jump power, whereas contrast bathing helps restore ability to produce repeated sprint efforts. There is mixed research showing the benefits of CWI on muscle soreness, some studies has show no benefits for reducing muscle damage post exercise, other research does. A positive note to CWI is that it reduces inflammation, but on the down side they have been shown to increase stress hormones and decrease antioxidant status.


Some people love ice baths and swear by them, others absolutely hate them, so I think the use of ice baths is purely subjective. In some people CWI decreases the feelings of pain and fatigue after a race and increase the perception of “recovery”. So if you’re one of these people – then go for it. If you can’t bear the thought of it then think about post exercise nutrition, compression socks and an active recovery as a way to improve your aching legs after the half marathon.


Another popular thing to try is putting magnesium salts in your bath. Simply put Epsom salts in your bath at home to improve your recovery, or if you are a more serious athlete you may want to put some magnesium flakes into your ice bath. A company called Better You can provide the magnesium flakes. Your body then absorbs the magnesium through the skin, which can help to sooth sore and tired muscles.


Share Button

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *