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The Comprehensive Guide to Ice Baths: Benefits, Risks, and Guide | Mdrive

The Comprehensive Guide to Ice Baths: Benefits, Risks, and Guide | Mdrive

August 11, 2023

taylor picture
By: Taylor Ford
Executive Editor 

 

Ice baths have been trending lately. Whether you are throwing some ice in your bathtub, converting a chest freezer, or dropping $5k on the latest cold water immersion tub, let's first immerse ourselves in this chilly post-workout craze and the potential benefits of taking the cold plunge. Immersing yourself in cold water might sound daunting at first, but the countless potential benefits make it quite an intriguing concept. Here, we delve deep into the world of ice baths, exploring their advantages, potential risks, and offering practical advice for those interested in giving it a shot!

 

 


 

 

Understanding Ice Baths: A Brief Overview

Ice baths, also known as cold water immersion, involve submerging the body in water temperatures ranging between 50-59°F. With experience, some people prefer to drop into the 40°F range but it is recommended to shorten the duration. This practice is a particularly popular post-workout  recovery strategy for sore muscles. Though it might send shivers down your spine just thinking about it, the chilly plunge can be quite rejuvenating. Dr. John Kline, Physical Therapist and Clinical Director with Spooner PT, explains the science of cold baths and how it works:

After an injury or a tough workout, some people use cold treatments (called cryotherapy) to help reduce swelling and pain:

  • Our cells work slower in the cold and faster in the heat.

  • When there's too much fluid around cells, they can't get enough oxygen which causes them to burst. The burst spills out causing even more swelling.

  • With cold water imersions baths, you cool your cells down, requiring less oxygen and less cellular bursting and in return, less swelling.

Basically, using cold treatments might help reduce swelling by making our cells work slower and need less oxygen.

Dr. John Kline

Dr. John Kline
PT, DPT, CSCS, FAFS

 

 


 

 

Ice Bath Benefits

1. Reduced Inflammation and Soreness

The cold temperature of an ice bath causes blood vessels to constrict, decreasing blood flow to the immersed areas. This can help reduce inflammation and swelling. Moreover, by potentially decreasing nerve signaling and altering pain perception, ice baths can alleviate muscle soreness. During my college days, we used to call it "instant ibuprofen" for this reason!

2. Improved Exercise Recovery

Intense exercise leads to microtrauma, aka, tiny little tears in your muscle fibers. This damage is necessary to stimulate muscle cellular activity, to help your muscles grow and repair. That process can lead to DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), and you earned it with every rep! The cold water immersion helps recovery by causing constriction of blood vessels, and thus, a dilation effect when the body is removed from the cold environment. This increased blood flow can help flush out waste products, like lactic acid, from muscles, aiding in faster recovery.

3. Regulation of Core Temperature

For athletes or individuals who engage in intense physical activity, especially in warm environments, ice baths can be a quick way to lower the body's core temperature, preventing overheating. If you are taking an ice bath immediately after exerting yourself in high heat, we advise ensuring someone else is around in case the extreme temperature swing causes unforeseen side effects.

4. Immunity Boost

There's emerging evidence suggesting that cold water exposure might enhance the immune system response. This is believed to be linked to the stress response triggered by the cold, which could potentially ramp up the body and immune system's defense mechanisms.

5. Mental Health Enhancement

The stress response elicited by cold immersion can also lead to the release of endorphins, the body's natural "feel-good" chemicals. This can result in improved mood and a sense of well-being.

6. Weight Loss

Ice baths could potentially aid in weight loss, the drastic change in your internal core body temperature makes your entire body burn more calories to warm back up.

7. Mental Resiliency

Taking ice baths, especially as your body becomes accustomed to the practice and allows for lower temps, is also great for training your mind for stress resiliency, breathing control, and overall mental toughness.

 

 


 

 

Practical Tips for Ice Bath Beginners

Duration Matters: While there aren't any official guidelines on how long you should stay submerged, beginners should always start at 2-3 minutes maximum. After you've experienced a few cold plunges, you can strive for a standard 5-6 minutes as it's a commonly recommended ice bath duration. Remember, it's essential to listen to your body and not overdo it. A general rule is the colder the water temperature the shorter the duration.

Gradual Exposure: If you're new to ice baths, it's wise to start slow. You can even start by challenging yourself to take a cold shower before eventually jumping into that ice-cold water. After a cold shower or two, hop into an ice bath but begin with shorter durations and gradually increase as you become more accustomed. 

Once you're ready for your first full-fledged cold plunge, be sure to quickly submerge your entire body (yes that means your head), immediately surface, and try to keep the water level around your collarbone for your entire soak. You can also target specific body parts before a full cold water immersion.

Mindset: Although this process is extremely uncomfortable on your body, it's more of a test of your mental toughness. If you prefer to be distracted, bring your phone or a book. Lastly, equip yourself with these two facts to help find comfort through a few minutes of the shivers:

  • The first minute in an ice bath is the worst, just find solace knowing the numbness will gradually take over.

  • Beginners should start with 2-3 minutes, by the time numbness kicks in you're almost done.

Health Considerations: It's crucial to consult with healthcare professionals before embarking on regular cold therapy or ice baths, especially if you have underlying health conditions.

Staying in cold temperatures for long lengths of time can put you at risk of hypothermia which could result in heart failure.  If your body temperature drops below 95°F you should seek medical attention immediately.

 

 


 

 

Should I take a hot shower after a cold plunge?

This is incredibly tempting, but not recommended. You just endured the chilly burn of super cold water, your body is fighting to naturally warm back up. The benefits of cold water immersion are from your body's reaction to this stress, so let it naturally react. However, if you are interested in contrast therapy, that's a whole separate process.

 

 


 

 

Contrast Therapy

Contrast therapy is the process of alternating between cold water therapy to hot water. Essentially you're making your blood vessels cycle between constricting and dilating. If you do decide to practice contrast therapy, you likely won't see all the long-term benefits of ice baths alone

 

 


 

 

Types of Ice Baths

Bathtub or Trash Can

This is the cheapest but not necessarily the easiest method. You have to wait for them to fill up, then dump the perfect amount of ice into the tub or can in order to achieve the proper temperature range. Not to mention the water is stagnant and your body naturally forms a small heat barrier, whereas the expensive models below circulate water to maintain the (uncomfortable) proper cold temperatures.

 

Pros Cons
+Cheap -Preparation time
-Clean up time
-Difficult to regulate temperature
-No water filtration/circulation

Plunge

man sitting in plunge bath

This is obviously the plug-and-play option but with convenience comes cost. At a minimum, this turnkey ice bath starts around $5,000 as I'm writing this. With that being said, I would absolutely love one of these as Arizona is making the news for record-breaking consecutive days at 115°F+. If you are serious about exercise, and serious about recovery, Plunge would give you the benefits of ice baths with a snap of a finger.

Pros Cons
+Plug and Play -Expensive
+Digital cooling system -Large footprint
+Filtration/circulation system -Difficult to regulate temperature
+No fill-up or clean up

Chest Freezer

ice bath chest

Like any trend, there is always a "do-it-yourself" option that goes viral alongside the luxurious one. So on the one hand you have the basic tub or trash can approach that is cheap but prep and cleanup time are quite cumbersome, on the other hand, you have a plug-and-play option that costs a very cool 5 grand. Then the "Chest Freezer Conversion" option enters the chat to bridge this gap. Essentially you can convert one of those giant upright freezers into an ice bath with similar plug-and-play options, circulation, and filtration features, but it will take some manpower and research. This guide was remarkably well-written, so if you're interested in tackling this project I'd follow his step-by-step instructions for building a chest freezer.

Pros Cons
+Moderately expensive -DIY cost and labor.
+Digital cooling system (optional) -Large footprint.
+Filtration/circulation system (optional) -Difficult to regulate temperature. (optional features can be added)
+No fill-up or clean-up.

 

 

 


 

 

Conclusion

There's a wealth of studies examining the effects of cold water therapy and immersion on various aspects of health and fitness, from inflammation and muscle stress to physiological adaptations post-exercise. One notable mention in the realm of cold exposure is the Wim Hof Method, which combines deep breathing techniques with cold exposure and has garnered significant attention in recent years.

Dr. Kline of Spooner PT also points out, "There are also emerging beliefs advocating for the removal of ice baths after exercising, claiming that the inflammation post-exercise is beneficial to aid in recovery and that reducing this inflammation essentially negates any of the positive effects gained through exercise."

Like all health and wellness practices, it's essential to approach ice baths with cautious steps rather than diving right in. Not every study reaches the same conclusion, and individual experiences and health benefits can vary. Always prioritize safety, and when in doubt, seek expert advice.

 

 


 

 

 

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

Are ice baths actually good for you?

Ice baths, traditionally used for health and wellness, have gained popularity recently, especially among athletes and fitness enthusiasts. The immersion in cold water (typically between 50 to 59°F for 5 to 10 minutes) offers several potential benefits. These include reducing inflammation and swelling, alleviating muscle soreness, aiding in post-exercise recovery, lowering core body temperature, and even supporting the immune system. Some recent studies have indicated their effectiveness, especially after high-intensity exercises. However, it's essential to approach ice baths with caution. While they may provide relief for some, they might not be suitable for everyone, especially those with certain health conditions. Always consult with a healthcare provider before trying an ice bath.

How long should you do an ice bath?

The duration of an ice bath largely depends on its purpose. For recovery from high-intensity exercises, immersing yourself in ice-cold water, around 50°F (10°C) or colder, for about 5 minutes is effective.

However, if you're aiming for general health and wellness benefits, taking ice baths for 10-15 minutes, 2-3 times a week, with water at 50°F (10°C) or colder is recommended.

How often should you do an ice bath?

While ice baths can offer therapeutic benefits like reducing inflammation, aiding in post-exercise recovery, and even boosting mood, there's no universal recommendation on how frequently they should be done. Generally speaking 2-3 times a week is considered fine. The key is to listen to your body and consult with a healthcare provider, especially if you have specific health concerns or conditions. Remember, while ice baths can be beneficial, it's essential to ensure you're using them safely and in a manner that's beneficial to your individual health and fitness goals.




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