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.

4 thoughts on “Exercise Science?

  1. What’s the theory behind ice baths? We used to soak our legs below the knee in 35-40 degree water after track practices. I was mainly doing it for shin splints (or maybe undiagnosed chronic exertional compartment syndrome), but that seems to me like it was more for muscle than for joint. Please don’t tell me it’s worthless and I suffered needlessly…..

  2. Julie’s question is relevant to my experience running cross country back in high school. I assumed the icing was to constrict the muscles so that the lactic acid in the lymphatic system would flush out and that it was better to ice the muscles/joints before one was aware there was an injury. Sometimes the adrenalin of a race can cover the signs of an injury. So, I guess I have two questions:

    1. Does the icing of muscles help remove lactic acid?

    2. If you think there might be an injury that would benefit from icing, is there any harm in doing so after an event? I can fully agree that doing so during an event is not a good trade-off.


    (BTW, could you do a post on lactic acid? I know that when I was hanging out with serious cyclists they would talk about lymphatic draining massage after a race.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.