Cold water immersion is a controversial recovery technique adopted by elite athletes across the globe. But is it really all it’s cracked up to be?

Many athletes regularly, slowly and gingerly, lower themselves into an icy cold bath. The theory is that the shock of at least 10 minutes in the icy water cools the muscles, reducing blood flow and inflammation. There is little doubt the numbing sensations of the cold water momentarily reduce muscle pain. However, in a less positive twist, this also reduces the ability of the muscles to repair and regenerate.

In a study measuring strength gains over three months, people randomly allocated to an ice bath (or a slow stationary bike cycle) after a strength workout had fewer muscle and strength gains. What’s even worse is that further research has shown that their icy baths are of no benefit when it comes to reducing inflammation.

It seems ice baths are one part of exercise recovery that should now be avoided.

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Professor David Cameron-Smith is a regular Fit Planet contributor. A transplanted Australian living in New Zealand, he obtained a PhD in nutritional biochemistry from Deakin University, and undertook postdoctoral training at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney. His research interests include the importance of nutrition in the maintenance of optimal health in an ageing population, and the impact of nutrition in regulating the function of muscles.

Professor David Cameron-Smith was a member of the Ice bath study scientific team, which included scientists from Australia, Norway, Japan and New Zealand.

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