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Ice Bath 101: Benefits, Research, Tips
Table of Contents
Ice baths have been a common therapeutic practice of athletes and other fitness enthusiasts for centuries.
Also called cold thermogenesis or cryotherapy, ice baths are often used to speed workout recovery and bolster the immune system.
But do ice baths work?
That depends on what your personal goals are, and how you ice bathe. Keep reading to learn more about the pros and potential cons of ice baths.
What are Ice Baths?
Ice baths are exactly what they sound like: baths in extra cold water, with lots of added ice.
Ice baths are thought to constrict blood vessels, leading to a ‘rebound effect’ of increased blood flow (vasodilation) once you warm up again. This process of vasoconstriction and vasodilation may improve circulation, promote mental health, boost metabolism, and more.
One advantage of ice baths (as opposed to just icing a muscle) is that large groups of interconnected muscle can be cooled at once. Ice baths expose a radically larger surface area to cold than ice packs or ice vests do.
Ice Bath Research
Ice baths may have been around for a while, but modern science hasn’t yet confirmed many of their most commonly purported benefits.
One 2017 study found that ice baths were no better than a traditional ‘cool down’ of low-intensity cycling when it came to reducing muscle soreness.
Yet many experts believe in the benefits of ice baths. Orthopedic surgeon Dr. A. Brion Gardner explains that this study doesn’t mean ice baths are useless — it just hints that they may not provide every benefit we thought they did.
“[The study] suggests that the previously believed benefits of faster recovery, reduction of muscle and tissue damage, and improved function aren’t necessarily true,” Dr. Gardner says.
That being said, there are numerous other potential benefits of ice baths. It’s telling that many (if not most) professional athletes continue to include ice baths in their routines to this day.
Five Potential Benefits of Ice Baths
Ice baths aren’t exactly fun, at least not for most people.
If you’re considering trying out ice baths for yourself, you’re probably wondering if the physical benefits are worth the discomfort involved. Is subjecting your body to icy cold water worth it?
We think so — and the 5 potential benefits below explain why.
- Relieve inflammation
- Relax your nervous system
- Restore your core temperature
- Help you lose weight
- Boost your immune system
1. Relieve inflammation
Taking an ice bath immediately after a workout is a great way to shut down the inflammatory hormonal cascade that accompanies hard training.
In other words, ice baths help get your body out of ‘fight or flight mode’ as quickly as possible. You’ll probably find the cold water a powerful antidote to sore, inflamed muscles. Just a few minutes in an ice bath may be enough to experience this anti-inflammatory effect.
2. Relax your nervous system
Ice baths can also benefit your nervous system. They tone and relax your Central Nervous System by strengthening your vagus nerve–a major nerve linked to the parasympathetic nervous system. Improved vagus nerve function leads to improved digestion, cognition, mood, reduced anxiety and much more.
All of this results in an improved tolerance to stress — including stress of the exercise-induced variety.
3. Restore your core temperature
One of the biggest barriers to recovery from exercise is a practical one: heat dissipation.
A car that’s pushed to its limits will eventually develop an overheating engine, and the human body isn’t much different. Small inefficiencies in the way we generate energy mean we sometimes need a little help cooling down. Taking a post-workout ice bath is one of the best antidotes for this type of physiological overheating.
4. Help you lose weight
This benefit might seem surprising at first, but it’s really just a matter of thermodynamics. Ice baths are so effective at lowering your skin and core temperature that they force your body to burn more calories in an attempt to stay warm.
After all, the original definition of the word calorie is intrinsically tied to heat. Many people find themselves burning far more calories than usual once they begin taking ice baths. Thousands of people, including ex-rocket scientist Ray Kronise, have successfully used ice baths to shed unwanted pounds.
The ability of Ice baths to manipulate metabolism means good things for your mitochondrial–the energy factories in your cells– health, too.
Studies show that exposure to cold triggers the production of more mitochondria within your fat cells, resulting in the conversion of white fat into healthier brown fat.
5. Boost your immune system
Another not-so-intuitive benefit of ice baths: improved immune system health.
This particular benefit was first brought to public awareness by Wim Hof, the so-called ‘Iceman’ whose feats include running up Everest in shorts, and swimming under solid sheets of ice.
Hof claims that his fondness for the cold makes him immune to diseases — and, amazingly enough, research has just started to prove him right.
One study found that subjects trained in the Wim Hof Method had a stronger immune response when injected with a known pathogen. They also had greatly reduced symptoms of infection.
Though the connection between cold and immunity has only recently become popular, it’s actually nothing new. Ice baths and contrast showers have been practiced in Europe for centuries for the very same reason.
Tips for taking an ice bath
If you’re feeling up to giving ice baths a try, great! There are just a few things to keep in mind before your first polar plunge.
- Start off slow
- Dial-in temperature
- Go full-body!
- Timing is important
- Alternate hot and cold
- Watch for side effects
Start off slow
Your first ice bath will likely be an unforgettable experience. The climate-controlled settings most of us modern humans live under mean we’re simply not used to extreme temperatures. Your first exposure to ice baths will probably feel pretty shocking.
Be on the lookout for something called the mammalian diving reflex, a reflex all mammals (including us) have. This reflex makes you gasp when your face comes in contact with icy water— it’s responsible for most of the tragic deaths that occur when people fall into frozen oceans or lakes.
To train your body to avoid this reflex, begin with a cold shower or cold water face dunk before trying a full-blown ice bath.
And even seasoned ice-bathing pros should use some restraint. We recommend keeping your sessions under 15 minutes.
The temperature of your ice bath matters, too. Coldest isn’t always better!
The ideal ice bath temperature should be roughly 50-59 ° Fahrenheit. If you’re trying an ice bath in the comfort of your own home, make sure to monitor your water temperature with a thermometer.
If the water temp is too high, add more ice; if it’s too low, add a little warm water.
The greater your body’s exposure to ice water, the greater the potential benefits of ice bathing. Try to immerse your entire body (up-to-and-including your upper chest) in the ice bath. This will allow your circulatory system to benefit as much as possible.
If submerging yourself fully seems daunting, you can always work up to it. Simply begin by submerging your feet, then your legs, then your core, et cetera.
Timing is important
If you’re using ice baths to speed your recovery from exercise, timing is crucial. The sooner you can get into the water, the better.
Wait too long and you won’t be able to curb exercise’s inflammatory aftereffects quickly enough. Aim to begin your ice bath no more than one hour after wrapping up your workout.
Another important consideration: never take an ice bath before your workouts. Your body should be fully warmed up — not cooled down — prior to intense exercise.
Alternate hot and cold
Some people believe the benefits of ice baths become even more pronounced if temperature contrast is thrown into the mix.
If you switch between hot water and cold water, for example, you may speed up the vasoconstriction/vasodilation process even more.
Watch for side effects
Ice baths may be great, but they do have some side effects, particularly the mammalian dive reflex mentioned earlier.
Those with preexisting blood pressure or cardiovascular problems may want to shy away from taking ice baths. If you’re in doubt, cold showers provide some of the same benefits without such intense side effects.
How to Make Your Own Ice Bath
Making your own ice bath at home is pretty simple. You just need three things: a large tub, lots of ice, and all your willpower. Here’s how it’s done.
Step 1. Obtain a large tub
Though a regular bathtub will do the trick, an ideal ice bath is slightly larger. There are several commercial options:
- Rubbermaid’s 100-150 gallon stock tank
- ColdTub’s Icepod unit
- 3B Scientific’s Ice Tub
Step 2. Get some ice
We recommend starting off by buying 100-200 pounds of ice, which will be enough to last for at least 2-3 hours. Since this much ice can get pricey fast, you might consider calling your health-conscious friends up and asking them to join you. That way everyone can pitch in — and everyone can experience ice bathing’s benefits.
Ice Baths: The Outlook
The verdict may be out when it comes to some of ice bathing’s science-backed benefits, but that hasn’t stopped thousands of athletes and health and wellness enthusiasts from bringing theory to practice and benefiting from ice baths themselves.
Besides, some of the most powerful proven benefits of taking ice baths are also some of the most unexpected — things like stress relief, improved immunity, and accelerated weight loss.
Ice baths present a valuable opportunity to break out of the climate-controlled modern world and get in touch with your body, breath, and nervous system. If you’re looking for a challenge, this might just be it!