Ice baths and contrast baths may seem crazy to the average joe but for athletes this is a common site and occurrence especially for contact sports like hockey, football, rugby, etc…
Ice Baths vs Contrast Baths
Ice baths are exactly what it sounds like, ice water immersion. Typically the athlete will immerse their full body in ice water around 12c/53f (+/-) 5c/10f.
Contrast baths are alternating immersion of hot and cold tubs of intervals from 1-5 minutes of each (cold/hot) for rounds of 3+. Typically the temperatures run between 5-10c/40-50f – 35-39c/96-101f.
Theoretical Benefits of Cold Tub and Contrast Baths
Most athletes use cold tubs or contrast baths to expedite their recovery. This process is supposed to :
- Reduce inflammation from the rigors of practice and training.
- Constrict blood vessels to “push out” waste products built from training and competing.
- “Calm” the nervous system down.
Is it Effective?
A Plus One for Contrast Baths
Vaile et al (1) did a comparison of contrast water therapy, passive recovery, and no intervention = just rested for symptoms of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). They found that contrast water therapy was associated with faster restoration of strength and power measured by isometric force and jump squat production following DOMS induced leg press exercise when compared to passive recovery.
“Therefore, contrast water therapy seems to be effective in reducing and improving the recovery of functional deficiencies that result from DOMS, as opposed to passive recovery.” (1)
Plus One for Contrast Baths AND Ice Baths
Higgins et al (2) did a study on 24 male rugby players divided in x3 groups:
- One immersion cold therapy 2x5min at 10c/50f
- Control group- 15mins of neutral environment rest
- Contrast bath (5 cycles of 10c/50f- 38c/100f
The test was to see the performance and recovery between 2 games completed in one day. The two forms of hydrotherapy were administered following the first simulated rugby game.
“Overall trends indicated that both treatment groups (contrast baths and ice baths) had performance results in the second simulated game above those of the control group of between 2% and 6% across the physical work stations replicating movement characteristics of rugby union. In conclusion, trends in this study may indicate that ice baths and contrasts baths may be more advantageous to athlete’s recovery from team sport than passive rest between successive games of rugby union “. (2)
Essentially they found that the immersion cold therapy and contrast bath helped the players better perform by 2-6% greater than simply resting for the second game.
Negative for Ice Baths
Kylie et al (3) did a test on 40 UNTRAINED volunteers using a eccentric loading protocol with their non-dominant leg. Participants were randomized to three 1 min immersion in either ice water or tepid water. Results showed NO significant differences in minimizing markers of DOMS.
With that said, there’s a few issues here. Untrained individuals will more than likely not be aware of the subtle differences that ice water immersion therapy can potentially elicit. Basically any soreness would be apparent to them, no matter what because it is all new. Also, most studies show a total of 10minutes of immersion, this study showed bouts of 1 minutes immersion x3 rounds.
When it comes to research on recovery it’s very difficult to keep consistent parameters and repeatable effects. Each sport and position has it’s own unique variables causing various levels of “wear and tear”. To top this each athlete’s recovery process will be different depending on how often they played, how hard they trained, the aggressiveness of the athlete, how conditioned they are, and so on.
In my experience when there is trauma- think football – then ice baths have been shown to be very effective to help the player get back to practice feeling more “refreshed”. I’ve found this to be the same for overuse sports like cross country, triathlons, weightlifting, soccer, etc… where there is constant pounding on the knees, ankle, feet, or back. A lot of these sports are also trained all year long. So many athletes will play club on top of their seasonal high-school team games. This will require extra intervention for recovery to help them perform at an optimal level and sustain the rigors of each game and practice.
In the end there doesn’t seem to be conclusive evidence that show it’s beneficial however I haven’t seen research that shows negative effects on performance. Through my years of coaching, I’ve found it to be very effective for most athletes.
Which to do, contrast or ice bath? It really just depends on the availability and trial and error, every adapts different. Some facilities have the finances for contrast baths, they felt amazing but realistically the average Joe will not be able to do this. Ice baths may be an easier alternative where you just need a tub, cold water, and ice.
Many people may look at these recovery strategies as strange and over the top. But for athletes that are pushing their bodies to another level they have to step up their recovery process just as much. This includes foam rolling, epsom salt baths, ice baths, TENS unit, compression gear and so on.
- Vaile, JM. “The Effect of Contrast Water Therapy on Symptoms of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.” Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research (2007): 698-702.
- Higgins, “Evaluation of passive recovery, cold water immersion, and contrast baths for recovery, as measured by game performances markers, between two simulated games of rugby union.” Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research (2012).
- Louise, K. “Ice‐water immersion and delayed‐onset muscle soreness: a randomized controlled trial”. J Emerg Trauma Shock. 2010 Jul-Sep; 3(3): 302.