Successful athletes such as Andy Murray and Jessica Ennis-Hill are known for using ice baths after exercise, however, a new study has thrown cold water on this strategy. The research published recently in the Journal of Physiology suggests that ice baths aren’t helpful for repairing and building muscle over time because they decrease the generation of protein in muscles.
Ice baths, also known as cold-water immersion, are still touted as a popular strategy for both acute recovery, on a timescale of hours and days, as well as adaptation to training over weeks and months. Researchers at Maastricht University have now found that ice baths are particularly ineffective for adaptation.
The explanation behind using ice baths is that by reducing body temperature, this in turn reduces blood flow, swelling and inflammation in tissues of the muscles. It is the same concept as the one behind icing a sprained ankle. While research has in fact confirmed that ice baths can be helpful for reducing muscle soreness, its effects on the formation of new proteins in the body, which is important for repairing and building muscle, are more controversial.
The researchers studied the impact of ice baths on the generation of new protein in muscles, which usually increases after we exercise, and also after we eat protein. They measured this using so-called stable isotope tracers and muscle biopsies, in a group of participants that did resistance exercise of both legs for two weeks (in a total of seven exercise sessions). After every exercise session, the participants immersed one leg in cold water with a temperature of 8°C and were found to have a decrease in the amount of protein generation in that leg.
Cas Fuchs, one of the authors of the study said, “Everyone exercising, whether they be weekend warriors or elite athletes, wants to get the most out of their workouts. Our research doesn’t discount cold-water immersion altogether but does suggest that if the athlete aims to repair and/or build their muscle, perhaps they should reconsider using ice baths.”