August 25, 2020

Should You Take Ice Baths?

Now, if there’s anything I love on this planet, it’s a hot tub. Stewing in the bristling heat, slowly becoming dehydrated and turning into a sort of human soup is my idea of heaven.

So imagine my surprise when I heard about the practice of ice baths—surely ludicrous, probably immoral and definitely masochistic.

But then, I discovered that ice baths are not in fact a torture device. They are actually an excellent way to recover your body after a challenging workout. As we all know, muscle soreness can be debilitating. With a post-workout ice bath, however, you can skip days of pain, revitalize your circulation system, and jump start your body’s healing process. Once you stop screaming.

Read on to learn some of the benefits of bathing in a tub of ice water.

Who Should Take Ice Baths?

You don’t need to be Wim Hof—the famous ‘iceman’—to benefit from a cold bath. Mr. Hof is world-renowned for his feats in the cold—he has swum under ice sheets, marathoned barefoot in the Arctic and attempted Everest in a pair of shorts. Mr. Hof is a messiah for the medical benefits of getting real dang cold. He uses cold as a stimulator for the body’s circulation and biochemical healing—and science has proven him correct.

Indeed, cold water submersion is now used by professional athletes to decrease inflammation.

Athletes will routinely take ice baths after a tough game or practice to return to peak performance much faster. That said, I’m talking more boxers than golfers. If your exercise is riding in a cart with a dozen Michelob Ultras, an ice bath might be overkill.

This is because ice baths are challenging on the cardiovascular system. If you have history of cardiac problems, if you struggle to maintain core temperature, or if you have Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, it is definitely not recommended. There are more fun ways to get a heart attack than turning into a human popsicle. Be sure to speak with your doctor before adding an ice bath to your recovery routine.

Benefits of An Ice Bath
  • Much like icing an injury, ice water restricts blood flow to muscles which helps reduce inflammation, swelling and tissue damage. By dulling nerve activity, muscle soreness can fade away—using your own body chemistry to heal, instead of medication which can have ill effects.
  • When the body is submerged in ice water, our cardiovascular system goes into overdrive—redirecting warm blood to your core to maintain body temperature. Then, a few minutes after you leave the cold bath, your body tries to warm your frigid, deeply unhappy extremities. Your heart works hard to pump blood and this cycle can encourage much greater circulation when added to your routine.
  • Once you’ve finished your ice bath, ideally you should resist the siren song of the hot tub or shower and let your body return to a natural temperature on its own. With your increased circulation, you may find a much faster healing time of your broken-down muscle fibers.
  • After a hard workout, lactic acid buildup can feel excruciating. Because we’re not cyborgs (yet…), the body’s breakdown and healing process of the microscopic tears in our muscles can last up to 48 hours. This, combined with muscle inflammation, can lead to restless nights when you really should be sleeping—not listening to the most boring history podcast you can find, doing the happy baby pose and staring up at the ceiling. Hypothetically. Ice baths, however, constrict your blood vessels, actively flushing out leftover lactic acid from your workout.
How to Make an Ice Baths

The ideal ice bath is not actually ice temperature. You’re going to want to aim for a bath that’s between 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit. You’ll know it’s the right temperature if your shriek of horror at what you’ve done to yourself reaches a low soprano. Mix one-part ice with three parts water, wait for the bath to cool and hop in. I recommend cursing like a soused sailor at this point, but your mileage may vary.

Also, try to get out of the ice bath before your lips turn blue.

Hypothermia is not peak physical performance. For maximum muscular benefit, you’ll want to last between 6-8 minutes, though some experienced bathers opt for longer… because this makes them feel powerful.

The Consensus?

I find it amusing that, as athletic people, we are happy to challenge ourselves in our workouts—and are often proud to achieve an extreme level of discomfort. But the idea of an ice bath afterwards can sound far more miserable.

But here’s the thing—you can never just muscle your way through recovery. Injuries will catch up with you, and then you’ll be out for much longer than if you took the time to take care of your body. If you’re hoping to get maximum mileage out of your muscles, you’ll get a lot of value out of an ice bath.