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Ice Bath FAQ

How long should you stay in an ice bath?
The therapeutic effect is a factor of temperature and time. The colder it is, and the more penetrating that cold, then less time is required to cool the tissue to a therapeutic level.

Traditional ice baths consisted of adding ice to water and depending on the amount of ice versus the amount of water these ice baths could be as high as 10 or 12C [50 – 55F]. In these circumstances, the recommended dosage varied from 10 to 15 or even 20 minutes.

With modern digitally controlled ice baths, or CryoSpas, which chill by conduction and convection [i.e. the jets are creating a 'wind chill' effect], the average treatment time is typically 3 to 6 minutes.
Why do footballers take ice baths?
It is quite commonly stated that ice baths reduce lactic acid but this is not the case. Lactic acid, or lactate, occurs when the body gets into an oxygen debt situation i.e. is functioning anaerobically. When the level of activity ceases, or reduces sufficiently, in simple terms the body can acquire surplus oxygen, which is used to convert the lactic acid back to its normal pyruvate / pyruvic acid state.

According to Gregory Dupont, who presented at the FIFA sponsored Sports Injury Summit held at Wembley in 2013 the main precursor of injury is fatigue. Further research investigated the common strategies for aiding recovery, minimising fatigue and, thereby, lowering the risk of injury.

The conclusion was good diet, good sleep, hydration [all lifestyle factors] plus cold water immersion were the main scientifically proven methods of aiding recovery and minimising fatigue.

The other side of the coin is performance and here we find that fatigue inhibits performance. So if we can manage fatigue by improving fitness and aiding recovery the outcome is improved performance and lowered risk of injury.
What is the purpose of an ice bath after running?
The primary purpose of an ice bath is to aid recovery and reduce the level of DOMS [delayed onset muscle soreness].

The mechanisms include aiding normalisation of body temperature, flushing out muscles due to constriction of blood vessels & compression through hydrostatic temperature, a decrease in metabolic activity, balancing of the sympathetic & parasympathetic systems and a reduction in muscle damage.

Athletes report feeling more energised at the following training session and report reduced muscle soreness enabling them to train more effectively.

The other commonly reported consequence is that fatigue is reduced and fatigue is the main precursor of injury [Gregory Dupont et al]. Therefore, using an ice bath reduces fatigue and lowers the risk of injury.
What is the optimum temperature for ice bath recovery?
Ice bath therapy is a factor of time and temperature. The higher the temperature the longer is the required duration.

In the past most researchers used a time of 10, 15 or even 20 minutes at typically 10C to 15C [50F to 59F]. The problem with the longer sessions is that the temperature is not maintained unless you constantly add more ice. And the colder water floats at the top unless you constantly stir the water. In practice, most people sit still as the body warms the water around the skin making it more tolerable.

However, this strategy can be counter-productive as the generally recognised therapeutic tissue temperature of 12C to 15C cannot be readily achieved in traditional ice baths.

Modern ice baths do not use ice but have a digitally controlled chiller maintaining the temperature at a pre-set level throughout the therapy session. This enables both lower temperatures and shorter sessions to achieve an improved therapeutic effect.

Also, when the ice bath has jets, like the CryoSpa, there is chilling by both conduction and convection (wind chill) leading to a much more penetrating cold and ensuring the tissue is chilled to the therapeutic level.

Many elite football clubs, rugby clubs and Olympic training facilities are now using temperatures in the 6C to 10C (42F to 50F) range with some even as low as 4C (39F). When combined with the windchill effect the therapy sessions are most often in the 3 to 6 minute range.
How does an ice bath work?
Cold water immersion, or ice baths, help reduce tissue swelling due to muscle breakdown and micro tears that occur during intense, or lengthy, physical activity and, also, help to control inflammation.

Some inflammation is a good thing but too much can lead to secondary damage or hypoxic injury.

The mechanisms include aiding normalization of body temperature, flushing out muscles due to constriction of blood vessels & compression through hydrostatic pressure, a decrease in metabolic activity, balancing of the sympathetic & parasympathetic systems and a reduction in muscle damage.

This infographic explains it well – courtesy of Yann LE MEUR, INSEP - @YLMSportScience

How does an ice bath work
Should I use an ice bath after every training session?
The debate on the use of ice baths, or cold-water immersion, rages on with many pundits claiming it is good and others claiming it is not.

The answer depends on the stage of training the athlete is at and the main objective of that training block.

If you are in the pre-competition phase of training and the main objective is to build power then there is research indicating that ice baths (and other micro-strategies for minimising training responses, such as anti-oxidant supplementation) during this phase may limit the adaptation effect i.e. your muscles will adapt to the increased workload faster if the body is allowed to contend with the inflammation and micro-tears naturally without the intervention of cold water immersion.

However, if you are tapering the workload toward an upcoming competitive event or if you are in the competitive part of the season then the main focus shifts to recovery and minimising fatigue rather than power building and in these circumstances research indicates the use of ice baths will be beneficial.

The key word here is fatigue. Fatigue is the main precursor of injury and is also a major performance inhibitor. Consequently, the fitness coach’s objective is to maximise fitness and minimise fatigue in order to maximise performance and lower the risk of injury.

And the main strategies for combating fatigue: Good Sleep, Good Diet, Hydration and Cold Water Immersion [per Gregory Dupont, FIFA Sports Injury Summit, Wembley Stadium, April 2013].

The argument is further complicated in team sports where skill, tactics and pre-planned moves need to be coached on the training pitch. In these sports the coach will want the players to be mentally alert and physically prepared to benefit fully from the coaching session, not hobbling around only partially recovered from the previous day’s training. In this instance, there may be a conflict of interest where the fitness coach is trying to maximise adaptation while the team coach wants the players recovered sufficiently to benefit fully from the training session, therefore, CWI may be strategically used to fit the on-going training session plans rather than eliminated to cater for both objectives.

So are ice baths good or bad?

The answer depends on the part of the season and the main objective of the current training regime. In the competitive phase of the season the use of ice baths will help minimise fatigue and aid recovery, thereby improving performance and lowering the risk of injury. In the pre-season, or power-building phase, of training the use of ice baths may adversely affect the adaptive response.

So, as with most tools in the athlete preparation toolbox, it is how the coach uses CWI to best effect, rather than whether it is appropriate to use it or not!

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