The debate on the use of ice baths, or cold-water immersion (CWI), rages on with many pundits claiming it is good and others claiming it is not.
The answer depends on the stage of training and the main objective of that training.
If you are in the pre-competition phase of training and the main objective is to build power then there is research [Jonathan Leeder & Marco Cardinale support this view, for example] indicating that restricting CWI during this phase increases 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 CWI.
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 CWI 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 aid 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 at Wembley 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 restricted rather than eliminated to cater for both objectives.
So is CWI 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, CWI 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 CWI may adversely affect the adaptive response.
So it is the appropriate use of CWI immersion that is the key.