New research from the University of Portsmouth suggests that athletes who plunge into icy water after intense exercise are not getting any benefit and might even be putting their health in danger. The study claims cold water immersion is no more effective than light cool-down exercise for recovery, and that plunging into ice baths may do more harm than good.
The study, published in the European Journal of Sports Science, was led by Jo Corbett, who explained: "Ice baths are frequently used by sportsmen and women to help them recover after exercise but our results show they don't work. They also pose a number of potentially serious health risks."
A practice favoured by many runners, ice baths have been thought to reduce inflammation, swelling, and muscle spasms and therefore pain, meaning an athlete can perform again at high level more quickly. Dr. Corbett added: "The practice has become increasingly popular in recent years thanks largely to high profile sportsmen and women doing it, but how it helps has never been entirely clear and the reasons given are largely speculative."
The scientists tested 40 male athletes after 90 minutes of intermittent shuttle running. After running, the men were divided into groups with 10 stood in cold water for 12 minutes; 10 stood in warm water for the same period; 10 sat in cold water for two minutes; and ten walked slowly for 12 minutes. Muscle performance was measured before exercise and afterwards at 12 hours, a day, two days and five days. No differences were found between any of the groups in terms of athletes' perception of pain or in their biochemical markers of muscle cell damage.
On the significance of the research, Dr. Corbett said: "There is considerable interest in finding ways of increasing the amount of training they can do and in improving recovery time and thereby increasing performance. But it is clear from this study that water immersion, whether in traditional ice baths or in warm water, does nothing to improve recovery time compared to traditional cool-down light exercise."
The findings of the study are unlikely to be supported by some of the most prominent figures in British running, with Paula Radcliffe and Mo Farah known exponents of the practice. Pointedly, the research team behind the paper also states further work will need to be carried out to reconcile conflicting findings from other studies, which suggest that this is perhaps not the final, nor conclusive word, on the subject.