Ice Baths for Recovery- Black, white or somewhere in between?

We all know that recovery is becoming increasing important and popular in athletes. As with most aspects of science, our expanding knowledge in the area only leads us to more questions. One of the more recent and controversial topics in the area of athlete recovery is can you recover ‘too much’?

Most athletes and coaches understand the principles of overload and supercompensation. We train, induce fatigue then recover. If these three components are dosed correctly a positive adaptation should occur. What this process highlights is that fatigue is an important part of the training process and necessary to induce adaptation. This then begs the question that if fatigue, muscle damage and inflammation are important to drive adaptation, could chronic or long term recovery actually be detrimental?

Do ice baths reduce the triggers for adaptation?

While there are a number of possibilities that may occur with chronic recovery (in particular cold water immersion or ‘ice baths’) two main theories exist. The first is that performing too much recovery may decrease the stimulus for adaptation. Might ice baths decrease inflammation and soreness and therefore lessen the trigger for adapting to the training the athlete has just completed. The other theory is that if the athlete is less sore and less fatigued then potentially they could train with enhanced quality and/or quantity. Add up the benefits of this increased training over months or years and this may provide significant benefit to the athlete.

So what evidence is available in the scientific literature to support or refute the above two theories. One of the first studies to look at this question involved investigating cycling or handgrip exercise three to four times a week for 4-6 weeks [1]. Overall cycling performance increased after training, however the leg that was immersed in the ice bath had a reduced performance when compared to the leg that did not have recovery. However, these subjects were not elite athletes and cooling protocol was extreme.

Overall cycling performance increased after training, however the leg that was immersed in the ice bath had a reduced performance when compared to the leg that did not have recovery.

A more recent and elaborate study by Llion Roberts and colleagues [2] compared the effects of cold water immersion and active recovery on changes in strength after 12 weeks of training as well as effects on specific signalling pathways (triggers for muscle growth). Cold water immersion decreased gains in muscle mass and strength and blunted key proteins responsible for muscle growth. Again, the subjects in this study were not elite and were training only twice per week.

While the two above studies suggest that cold water immersion may be detrimental to performance, there are two further studies in cycling which suggest that performance may be increased by regular recovery.

Does hydrotherapy hinder adaptation to training?

We [3] investigated the effects of cold water four times per week or passive recovery over 7 d of baseline training, 21 d of intensified training, and an 11-d taper in highly trained cyclists. Cyclists in the cold water immersion group had increased in a range of sprint and high intensity cycling performance. Results suggest that hydrotherapy does not hinder adaptation to training and may indeed enhance a number of aspects of cycling performance.

Ishan and colleagues [4] investigated the effect of regular post-exercise cold water immersion (3 sessions per week of endurance training for 4 weeks) on muscle adaptation. Using muscle biopsies, the authors reported increases in markers that indicate improvements in endurance performance.

So with minimal research in the area and conflicting results found in the existing research, it is important to give consideration to a number of factors before making a decision on whether or not to include recovery in a training program.