Ice Baths

Prof. Sugarman. Russian Immigrant. 1890's. Brought the practice of Ice bathing to America, claiming its revitalizing benefits.
example of the modern ice bath

So what are we to make of the phenomenon of post exercise ice baths?  Even a casual investigation of the therapy will reveal that there are no actual studies that support the effectiveness of the therapy as an aid to recovery.  On the contrary, the few actual studies of its use in this regard are either inconclusive or show a negative impact.  This is not the same thing as using it for the treatment of injuries, though I can’t imagine full body or partial body immersion as ever being necessary.  Perhaps a runner suffering from chronic shin splints might immerse both legs up to her knees in an ice bath or bucket post race to deal with the pain and inflammation associated with that condition before it worsens post race, or to allow them to compete in the next event as close to full strength as possible, but for the average person, the very first letter of the RICE protocol says it all:  REST!  Being an athlete is not about being in great shape or being healthy!  You must be in great shape to WIN.  You must be as healthy as possible to WIN.  BUT THE POINT IS TO COMPETE AND WIN!  Athletes routinely sacrifice future health for the sake of their competitions.  Are you willing to risk the future health of your knees in order to be able to squat 415 lb. in 3 months?

My take on the ice bath is this.  Everyone is looking for magic.  A successful athlete uses this technique and claims it is the source of her success (this is called anecdotal evidence: meaning personal opinion without any proof).  Paula Radcliffe (image below right) is often credited with popularizing the practice by crediting her European long distance championship in 2002 to the use of ice baths.  This reminds me of another piece of magic from the world of sports.  In the late 90’s Mark McGwire was one of the great home run hitters and attributed his remarkable power to a readily available OTC supplement called DHA.  It was touted as a steroid “precursor” that the body could use to make elevated levels of testosterone (increasing muscle mass and power).  It’s popularity exploded in gyms and high school sports across the country.  This was taken so seriously by baseball “authorities” that they actually banned its use.  Of course, what McGwire didn’t tell the world was that he was actually taking steroids, too, and that maybe actual steroids had just a little to do with his herculean power.  DHA, meanwhile, is still readily available at your local Vitamin Shop and GNC.  And the FDA hasn’t seen fit to pull it off the market 20 years later.

English: Paula Radliffe winning in New York
Image via Wikipedia

What might ice baths do to actually help improve athletic performance?  Well, there’s the placebo effect.  You think something helps, so you unconsciously push yourself a little harder than you previously thought possible (though it was always possible).  It probably increases the victims tolerance to pain and extreme discomfort (SAID principle), allowing the athlete to mentally push through their pain threshold allows them to push just a little harder than their competitors (no research to prove this.  It is just my supposition; an uncertain belief).  You can now site this on your own, and in a few years it will be repeated as a fact by hundreds of sources all linking back to each other and this blog in a vicious circle of fog and mis-information, that may turn out to be true, or false, if anyone ever deigns to do actual reproducible studies.

Here’s the Wikipedia link to ice baths: click this

Just remember, unless you’re a competitive athlete; i.e. someone who lives and dies their actual competitions; when you’re injured you rest your injuries as the first protocol of RICE.  Even professional Athletes, in their off-season, rest.

Exercise Intensity & Overtraining

The New York Times ran a great story in its health section this week, on exercise intensity, overtraining, and the insanity of some of the current marketing trends in the fitness industry.

Unlike their article on the value of icing, it is authoritative, well written, coherent, and uses respected experts to explain the points made. Read it here.

Exercise Science?

Hello.  I’m back.  And i have a few things to say.

Over the last 2 weeks I’ve read multiple articles in the New York Times Health section, and a much longer piece in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, that would make any seasoned exerciser bewildered about what we do, and don’t know, about how the human body works.

In one article, “Why Ice may be bad for sore muscles“, there are so many ridiculous suppositions that it boggles my mind.  The article starts off:

“For the study, researchers at the University of Ulster and University of Limerick in Ireland reviewed almost three dozen earlier studies of the effects of using ice to combat sore muscles, a practice that many who exercise often employ. Ice is, after all, the “I” in the acronym RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation), which remains the standard first-aid protocol for dealing with a sports-related injury. Icing is also widely used to deal with muscles that twinge but aren’t formally injured. Watch almost any football, basketball or soccer game, at any level, and you’ll likely see many of the players icing body parts during halftime, preparing to return to play.”  (The bold text is highlighted by me)

In 29 years of being in the fitness industry, I’ve never; not once; heard the recommendation to ice muscles made sore from regular exercise or physical activity.  Not once.  Ever.  The RICE protocol is used in first aid when dealing with INJURIES.  Post exercise muscle soreness is not considered an injury and would be considered counter productive as icing the muscle would reduce blood flow, which is the opposite of what a weight trainer is trying to accomplish.  The paragraph then goes on to say that icing is also used for muscles that may not be sore, but “twinge”.  Again, never heard this in 29 years from a professional.  And the final nonsense: “…players icing body parts during halftime, preparing to return to play”.  Body parts, yes.  But not specifically muscles.  The athletes routinely ice shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, and ankles.  They do not typically ice biceps, pectorals, latissimus dorsi, Quadriceps, etc.  Do you know what the difference is?  Athletes ice joints, not muscles, during competition.  And they only ice themselves if they’ve suffered an injury, like a contusion, or severe muscle pull, or sudden attack of tendonitis; situations where inflammation around the affected joint will have a serious impact on the athlete’s ability to continue competing.  Yes, muscles cross joints, as do tendons and ligaments.  But it is the area of the joint that matters.  The article continues to discuss how the research being detailed shows that icing reduces the overall performance of the athlete in the affected area.  Really, was it the icing, or the injury that preceded the icing?  And how much more degraded would the athlete have performed if they didn’t ice at all and tried to compete anyway?  As someone who used to be a tournament racquetball player, I have some experience with elbow tendonitis.  Icing was sometimes the difference between winning a trophy and prize money, or losing because i could no longer grip my racquet.  As to why an athlete would risk more serious injury by continuing, the answer is: They are competitive athletes with prize money and trophies at stake.  This is who they are and it is often their job.  And Aaron Rodgers or Eli Manning at 75% effectiveness is many factors of 100% better than their respective backups.

Lets continue:

The article goes on to discuss how:  there  has been surprisingly little science to support the practice. A 2004 review of icing-related studies published to that point concluded that while cold packs did seem to reduce pain in injured tissues, icing’s overall effects on sore muscles had “not been fully elucidated” and far more study was needed.”  Why an ice pack before exercise should depress performance isn’t fully understood…”.   Not understood!  Oh my god!  Icing reduces blood flow and slows down cellular activity, which is why we ice severed limbs, not put them on heaters.  And ice will slow down muscle cellular activity and tighten up the muscles it is used on.  There aren’t any studies because it would be like a PHD in physics deciding to test Newtons theory of gravity by dropping an apple and a 50 kilo weight from the same hight to see if they fell at the same rate (they do).

I need to point out that a MLB Pitcher, or an NFL Quarterback is paid millions of dollars to play, while you and I are not.  They are not icing to rehabilitate an injury, they are icing to continue the competition.  And how did we go from discussing whether or not icing injuries was an effective treatment, to icing muscles before exercise to see how that affects performance?  How does that have any relevance to icing an injured body part?  No one ices before exercising.  Anyone in the exercise industry knows you warm up muscles and joints prior to exercise, not cool down!  For the rest of us, any injury that would require the RICE protocol would also be followed by the recommendation to rest the injury for a period of days or even weeks, depending on the severity.

Why was this ridiculous study done in the first place?  I imagine some graduate student in Ireland needed to conduct research and present their findings in order to receive their graduate degree.

As to why the New York Times decided to publish an article about this I surmise it was a slow news week in the world of exercise, and the writer of the article doesn’t know anything about fitness, or doesn’t care.  Write or die.  I see the same thing in all the major fitness magazines.  You can’t leave blank space.  You must publish something every month or go out of business (or lose your job).  This writer should lose his or her job just for publishing this nonsense and confusing the public more than they already are.  Hey New York Times…maybe you should hire me.

I will follow this up with two more blog posts; each on two other NYT articles; with valid information, much better researched, much more well-informed, and seemingly contradictory, on the issue of fat and weight loss.  Stay tuned.