Long ago, deep in the bowels of the Soviet Union, senior weightlifters would often tease their younger counterparts. When a young weightlifter missed a lift, he was required to run outside and jump in the snow before continuing his training. Over time, someone discerned that the weightlifters who jumped in the snow were recovering faster than their peers. Jumping in the snow became commonplace for everyone, and the ice bath was born.
I have no idea if the above legend is true. Everything about ice baths seems to be a mystery, including definitive data on whether they actually work. But ice baths are firmly cemented in sporting custom as a way to speed recovery after training or competition.
A recent study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared ice baths to contrast baths, a popular derivative. In an ice bath, you simply sit in icy cold water. During a contrast bath, you alternate sitting in icy cold water and sitting in warm water. Today’s study examined 24 professional rugby union players. After a scrimmage game, each player was subjected to either an ice bath, a contrast bath, or ten minutes of quietly browsing Facebook on his phone. During the subsequent days, the players were tested and compared in order to understand which protocol had been most effective.
The results? In short, the ice bath group recovered the best of all. The control group was close behind. And the contrast bath group royally sucked. The contrast bath group showed the worst recovery from muscle soreness. They also showed more swelling of the legs. And during a team practice later in the week, the contrast bath group reported the practice felt 25% more difficult than the ice bath group members reported.
At first this would seem pretty damning for contrast baths, but let’s examine exactly how the baths were executed. Each player in the ice bath group sat in the ice bath for five minutes, got out for 2.5 minutes, and then went back in for a final five minutes. Each player in the contrast bath group sat in an ice bath for one minute, then a warm bath for one minute, and repeated for a total of ten minutes.
I think this protocol put the contrast bath group at a disadvantage. The contrast bath group only experienced sixty seconds in the ice bath before switching to warm water. This probably wasn’t enough time in the cold to get any of the reported benefits of icing. However, the warm bath was probably enough to exacerbate the inflammation already started by their scrimmage game. In comparison, the ice bath group actually experienced a total of 12.5 minutes of cold before returning to a normal body temperature. The 2.5 minutes between ice baths certainly didn’t warm them up very much.
I would like to see the contrast bath group perform a similar protocol as the ice bath group. But instead of 2.5 minutes at room temperature between ice baths, I would put the contrast bath group in a warm bath for those 2.5 minutes. In my experience, that’s closer to how contrast baths are actually used.
What’s your experience with ice baths and contrast baths? Do you think one is better than the other? Let us know in the comments.
1. Trevor Higgins, et al. Acute Response to Hydrotherapy After a Simulated Game of Rugby. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. Oct 2013. Vol. 27. Issue 10. p2851–2860. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31828151b6.
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