Ice Bath Benefits: The Real Deal or Just Hype?

A man plunging into an ice bath to try and reap some of the benefits

Ice baths, also known as cold water immersion, have been making headlines lately. Athletes and fitness enthusiasts alike swear by their benefits. But is this just hype, or is there scientific evidence to back it up? Let's dive in and explore both sides of the argument.

What are ice baths?

An ice bath involves immersing the body in cold water for a period of five to 10 minutes, usually at a temperature of around 10 to 15 degrees Celsius. According to ice bath aficionados, it is said to help reduce inflammation, boost muscle recovery, and improve overall physical performance.

The benefits of ice baths

An athletic male rubbing his shoulder

Some studies have concluded that cold-water immersion has tangible benefits. A 2019 investigation into the effects of ice baths on elite rugby players found the post-workout ritual resulted in reduced fatigue and soreness.

2014 study claimed that cold-water immersion can “promote recovery of stretch-shortening cycle performance.” And further research found that frequent cold water exposure increases brown adipose tissue activity, which helps the body lose weight.

While these findings are promising, some studies have concluded that it’s all hype. A study published in The Journal of Physiology demonstrated that cold-water immersion had zero impact on cellular stress or inflammatory measures compared to active recovery.

Additional research supports this finding, with another study noting, “no significant differences were observed between groups with regard to changes in most pain parameters, tenderness, isometric strength, [or] swelling.”

In short, the evidence for and against the legitimacy of ice baths as a performance-enhancing and recovery-supporting practice is inconsistent.

What about Wim Hof?

We can’t talk about ice baths or cold water immersion without mentioning Wim Hof, also known as the "Iceman." Hof is known for his ability to withstand extremely cold temperatures and has claimed that cold exposure has numerous benefits for the body, including improved immune function and increased energy levels.

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A post shared by Wim Hof (@iceman_hof)

The Iceman’s claims have earned him a following of 3+ million on Instagram and several book deals. He also runs events worldwide and offers an at-home training program and app.

What does the science say? A 2021 study observed sprinters who performed a Wim Hof session before running. Their performance was then compared to a control group.

The researchers concluded that the Iceman’s method does not improve athletic performance short-term.

However, a 2022 study examined adult males who practised Hof’s cold-water immersion method and found that it may increase the presence of the body’s anti-inflammatory chemicals.

So, are ice baths all hype or are they the real deal?

A person wearing a spray jacket holding ice in their hand in front of a lake

The answer is likely somewhere in between. While some scientific evidence suggests that ice baths can have beneficial effects on the body, it’s not consistent, and more research is needed. Additionally, while individuals like Wim Hof may have experienced personal benefits from cold exposure, these claims are not backed by extensive and repeated scientific research.

It is worth noting that ice baths can be uncomfortable and even dangerous if not done correctly. Consult with a healthcare professional before trying cold water immersion, especially if you have any pre-existing medical conditions.

Do what works for you

A tattooed man lying down with his eyes closed

Ice baths are a popular method for recovery and performance enhancement, but that doesn’t mean they’ll work for everyone. Take any grand claim about cold-water immersion with a grain of salt. More research is needed before we fully understand the potential benefits – or lack thereof – of ice baths.

Published on 15/03/2023