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Ice baths, cryotherapy, cold water immersion: these icy therapy methods are gaining popularity despite their chilly names. An ice bath, also known as cryotherapy or cold water immersion, is a method that athletes use to reduce muscle soreness and accelerate their muscle recovery time between serious workouts. To take an ice bath, fill a tub or tank with cold tap water, then chill it with ice and ice packs until it is frigid, but not actually freezing. Then soak your muscles for 10-15 minutes before diving for safety into the hot shower to warm up.
But just how does cold water help your muscles, and does it really work or are the rumors true about the cold water myth? We're here to unpack everything you need (or want) to know about cryotherapy after workouts and how to help your muscles recover from serious exercise.
Athletes use ice baths to cool and soothe muscles after a hard workout and increase muscle recovery speed between workouts.
You don't actually need to freeze yourself or the water. Bring your water down to about 50 to 60 degrees.
Ice baths should range between five (5) and fifteen (15) minutes, and no longer. Soak one part of your body or wade in up to your chest for a full-body soak.
After a hard workout, your muscles swell which contributes to soreness and extended recovery time. By properly cooling your muscles, you can reduce discomfort and recover more quickly.
Athletes take ice baths to ease the pain of swollen, overused muscles and to reduce the time it takes to recover before their next major workout. Many athletes and their trainers swear by ice baths as the ideal way to cool off after a workout or a tough game. There's no doubt that diving into a tank of cold water is certainly soothing when your muscles are on fire from a hard day of weight lifting, aerobics, and cardio. Or a hard day on the job, for that matter.
Athletes who work hard and hate waiting through recovery times embrace ice baths as a time-honored way to soothe sore muscles and accelerate recovery.
How do ice baths help your muscles? The answer lies in the relationship between exercise, recovery, and inflammation. When you work out, your muscles take a beating. They shred, fill with blood, and eventually grow bigger and stronger. But in that time, you have essentially done yourself many small injuries - and those injuries swell.
As you may know, when an injury swells, it becomes sore and tender. If swelling, or inflammation, is not controlled, it will cause pain and a swollen injury will take longer to recover. So here's where the ice water comes in. We all know that ice packs reduce swelling on an injury, but what if your whole body is swelling with recently hard-worked muscles?
By cooling down your entire body (or a targeted body area) with ice water, you are essentially applying ice to every single muscle in your body (below the chest). Like the usual RICE method (rest, ice, compress, elevate) for injury recovery, an ice bath provides the "I" all over, which we know reduces inflammation in the moment and prevents inflammation from slowing your future recovery.
You may have heard about that one study that "proved" that ice baths weren't really that effective in muscle cool-downs and recovery. While we're sure their scientific method was intact, there are two important things to note about this disproval (and why coaches aren't taking it seriously). The first is the sample set. This study comprised of nine (9) young men between 19 and 24 years old who exercised three times a week. That's a pretty small sample set to draw any real conclusions. The second matter is that they really concluded that an ice bath has a similar benefit to 10 minutes of cool-down activity like walking or elliptical pedaling.
So what we really discovered here is that if you want a cold muscle-soothing method and/or don't have 10 minutes to cool down, an ice bath absolutely does help reduce inflammation and improve your recovery time. Probably (sample size, excepting) with about the same effectiveness as a long cooldown walk.
So how should you use ice baths in your own workout routine? If your muscles are on fire after a workout, an ice bath can be the perfect way to ice-treat those swollen muscles and help you cool down safely from your workout - without the ten-minute cooldown.
The best approach, for a short but intense workout, is to draw your cold-tap bath before you get started. Then dump in the ice as you're catching your breath from your last set and dunk yourself two to five minutes later as the ice sets in. Sit or stand in the bath at chest level for ten to fifteen minutes (or until your sense of survival drives you from the tub) and take a warm (not hot) shower to wrap up your treatment.
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