Ice Baths Not So Hot For Building or Repairing Muscle

Ice baths are one of the hot trends in the fitness world right now, especially among athletes. Heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill and tennis player Andy Murray are among a growing number of pro athletes who use ice baths, mostly for recovery purposes.

There’s even one “fitness pro” who’s built an entire empire on ice baths.

Some athletes claim these icy shockers not only ease the pain of sore muscles, but speed recovery by improving the rate of muscle repair. The claims go as far as to say ice baths improve the rate of new muscle growth.

But science says that when it comes to repairing or building muscle, ice baths are not so hot. (See what I did there?) In fact, according to a study published in the Journal of Physiology recently, they may even impede muscle repair and growth by decreasing the generation of protein in muscles. Last time I checked, that’s kind of the opposite of what you want to happen during your recovery periods, isn’t it?

Cold-water immersion, lovingly referred to by proponents as ice baths, have long been a staple of the “trainers room” for teams and athletes of all levels and sports. It’s believed that acute recovery from training, when measured over weeks and months, is improved with the use of ice baths. This may be true simply because cold temperatures decrease acute inflammation and pain, allowing athletes to repeat hard bouts of training more frequently.

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The idea that the reduction in body temperature reduces blood flow, swelling and inflammation in muscles has some merit. It is, after all, the same sound logic behind the idea of icing a sprained wrist or twisted ankle. However, with reference to the idea of improved muscle repair and growth, the researchers at Maastricht University believe that ice baths are not the answer and are particularly ineffective.

While there is significant science to back the idea that ice baths can help reduce muscle soreness, their effect on proteins in the human body is more controversial. Since proteins are critical for the repair and growth of muscle, this is something we definitely want to get right.

Using so-called stable isotope tracers and muscle biopsies, the team at Maastricht University looked at how ice baths affect the generation of new protein in muscles. This happens after exercise and after we eat proteins.

Participants were tested over a period of two weeks, a total of seven resistance-training exercise sessions. After each session, exercisers immersed one leg in cold water (8 degrees Celsius.) Researchers found that across the board, the legs that were immersed in the ice baths showed a decrease in the amount of protein generation in the muscle tissue.

Cas Fuchs, one of the authors on the study said: “Everyone exercising, whether they be weekend warriors or elite athletes, wants to get the most out of their workouts. Our research doesn’t discount cold-water immersion altogether but does suggest that if the athlete aims to repair and/or build their muscle, perhaps they should reconsider using ice baths.”

Ice baths to relieve soreness and get you back to training sooner? Sure, if you can handle it! But if you’re freezing your butt off hoping for better or faster muscle growth or repair, you may be wasting your time.

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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Journal Reference – Cas J. Fuchs, Imre W.K. Kouw, Tyler A. Churchward‐Venne, Joey S.J. Smeets, Joan M. Senden, Wouter D. van Marken Lichtenbelt, Lex B. Verdijk, Luc J.C. Loon. Postexercise cooling impairs muscle protein synthesis rates in recreational athletes. The Journal of Physiology, 2019

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