Ever since Dr. Gabe Mirkin, a professor at the University of Maryland, coined the term “RICE” (Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation), ice has been used to treat acute athletic injuries. Ice and cool whirlpools have been staples in athletic training rooms for high school, college, and professional athletes worldwide for years. You can often see Olympians and professional sports players like LeBron James with ice bags after practices and games.
Ice, ice baths, and more popularly-termed “cryotherapy” have shown a recent focus on using such methods for recovery and injury prevention. But are ice baths truly helpful?
Ice baths are generally thought to help microtrauma in muscle fibers after repetitive exercise that can cause muscle soreness. If one has less muscle soreness, they should be able to train more efficiently. Ice baths can treat large areas of musculature at one time and may jump start the healing process. The ice bath constricts blood vessels, and is thought to flush waste products and reduce swelling.
Unfortunately, research to date is inconclusive on whether or not ice baths actually improve performance. Some argue that eliminating all inflammation stops adaptations that are necessary during the training process. Coaches and health care professionals have varying recommendations and opinions on whether or not ice baths can help. However, we can generally agree that they can’t hurt.
Here are some tips to stick to for safety:
Water temperature between 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit is recommended, although this number range is not set in stone. If you cannot tolerate the temperature that cold, 60 to 70 degrees can still be beneficial.
Do not exceed 10 minutes. Between six and eight minutes is recommended.
Do not jump in a hot shower after an ice bath. Gradual re-warming is ideal.
Invest in some neoprene booties to protect your toes.
Jeanna LeClaire Hill, PT, DPT, ATC, CSCS, USAW-L1SP, is a doctor of physical therapy and certified athletic trainer at HSS Spine & Sport in Jupiter, FL. She graduated magna cum laude from Towson University with a Bachelor of Science degree in athletic training and earned her doctorate in physical therapy from the University of Maryland School of Medicine. She is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, CrossFit Level 1 Trainer, co-owner of CrossFit Waterway, and a USA Weightlifting Level 1 Sports Performance Coach.