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.
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.