A post-workout ice bath can reduce swelling in your sore muscles, which sounds like a great idea after a sore workout. But even though some athletes swear by them, ice baths may not be very helpful for recovery.
Cold reduces inflammation
If you’ve ever iced a sprain or a muscle strain, you’re familiar with the phenomenon: ice reduces pain and swelling. Cooling down a body part makes blood vessels constrict, reduces the ability of fluids to build up at the area, and reduces swelling. As a result, immune system cells that would normally rush into the injured area are kept to a minimum. Since a workout can cause muscle damage, it seems reasonable to apply the same technique to the microscopic injuries you get all over your body.
Cold may also delay healing
Reducing inflammation sounds great, until you realise that the process of healing is closely related to inflammation. If you reduce blood flow, swelling, and immune system response, you may also be delaying healing. Recent research shows that even icing sprains and injuries may not actually help, and the same seems to be true of ice baths.
As Christie Aschwanden wrote in her deep dive on sports recovery techniques, post-workout ice baths are falling out of favour too. They may make you feel better in the short term, but if you use them after every workout you may actually be slowing down your gains.
There may be mental benefits
Ice baths don’t just treat your muscles; they are a whole experience. Some people love how it feels to get out of the bath, even if they don’t love being in it; fans of the baths say they feel euphoric or invincible. After all, you’ve just been through something painful and difficult, and you survived. If that makes you feel like a tougher athlete, maybe it’s worth it for you.