Ice Water Immersion Improves Performance

Research has proven that cooling your body during exercise improves your performance. But was is the best way? Science looks at ice baths, ice water ingestion, and cooling garments to figure it out.

In a recent article I wrote about the effects of cold water ingestion on exercise. The results were mixed, but promising. As a coach of MMA athletes this area is of particular interest, as I have long believed that cooling fighters in between rounds was an extremely important part of a corner man’s job. The question has always been, “What is the best way to get the job done?” This is a critical question for all athletes and coaches. Cooling yourself on the bench, in between matches, or even in between sets at the gym can have dramatic results on your performance. In a hot environment, this is even more important.

When you’re in a hot arena, or exercising outside when it’s hot, cooling yourself before you even start exercising can help you get better results. The reason is hot external temperatures will reduce your performance when compared to both cold and room temperature conditions. One study actually found that the ideal temperature for athletics was between 6 and 7 degrees Celsius – that’s 42 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s good news for those of us living in the frigid north. In fact, environmental temperatures have a major impact on most endurance events.

Because a major reason for reduced performance in hot environmental temperatures is the comparatively high core body temperatures found in people, it’s important to look at ways to keep cool. A recent study by BMC Medicine performed a review of thirteen studies which looked at various popular methods of cooling an athlete prior to exercise. Each used one or more of three methods including cold water immersion (getting in a tub of water), ice slurry ingestion (drinking water with crushed ice in it), and the use of garments designed to cool athletes.

The cold water immersion was found to be the most effective of the methods at improving performance, followed by ice slurry. The cooling garments, which were vests or jackets filled with ice, did not have any beneficial impact on performance. The authors did note that ice slurry, though less effective, was the more practical of the methods and thus was ultimately the most useful for most athletes. Combining methods was also about as effective as you’d expect.

It doesn’t matter if you’re just hitting the gym or competing at a major sporting event, having even moderate improvements to your performance in the short term and the long term means greater success. So here’s the bottom line: paying attention to your temperature is a critical component to athletics. If it’s hot outside cooling yourself before you even begin is something you should do. When you get hot during exercise it is once again important to cool yourself. If you can hop into a cold water tub, then do it, because it’s the best way. If not, drink ice water. Crushing ice into the water is the best way to accomplish this. Your results will be your body’s way of thanking you for the cold drink of water.


1. El Helou N, Tafflet M, Berthelot G, Tolaini J, Marc A, Guillaume M, Hausswirth C, Toussaint JF: Impact of environmental parameters on marathon running performance. PLoS One 2012, 7:e37407.

2. Paul R Jones, et. al., “Pre-cooling for endurance exercise performance in the heat: a systematic review,” BMC Medicine, 10:166 (2012)

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