November 9 - They are a fact of life for many Olympians, but a new study has cast doubt on the effectiveness of ice-baths in aiding the recovery of athletes after exercise.
Scientists at the University of Portsmouth, on England's south coast, found that cold water immersion was no more, and no less, effective than light cool-down exercise in helping athletes to recover after sport.
Published in the European Journal of Sport Science, the study involved testing a total of 40 male athletes after 90 minutes of intermittent shuttle running.
These men were divided into four groups.
The first of these groups stood for 12 minutes in cold water; the second in warm water; the third sat in cold water for two minutes; and the fourth engaged in 12 minutes of slow walking.
Muscle performance was measured before exercise and afterwards, at 12 hours, one, two and five days.
No differences were found between any of the groups in terms of athletes' perception of pain, or in their biochemical markers of muscle cell damage.
Lead author of the study, Jo Corbett, said: "Ice-baths are frequently used by sports men and women to help them recover after exercise, but our results show they don't work.
"It is clear from this study that water immersion, whether in traditional ice-baths or in warm water, sitting or standing, does nothing to improve recovery time compared to traditional cool-down light exercise.
"Indeed, research is increasingly pointing towards cold water immersion as posing a possible threat to people's health."
Contacted directly by insidethegames, Corbett said he would not rule out cold water immersion as having "a small beneficial effect on recovery under certain conditions", nor would he claim that the Portsmouth study was "the definitive word on the matter".
However, "the mechanisms of action by which cold water immersion could positively influence recovery are not clearly established.
"In addition, there is a wide variation in the way in which cold water immersion is used in terms of temperature, duration, frequency, time after exercise, depth of immersion and body position during immersion.
"All of these will influence the physiological responses during immersion.
"Likewise, cold water immersion is used after many different sporting activities for recovery, but the things that people are trying to recover from when using [it] might be quite different – for example, impact injuries, eccentric muscle damage, or hyperthermia."
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