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Do ice baths really work?

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Cold water immersion after resistance exercise does not significantly reduce inflammation in the muscles, according to a study published in The Journal of Physiology.

The findings raise questions over the merits of ice baths for athlete recovery.

Ice baths are known to reduce muscle temperature and blood flow, and this was thought to enhance repair of muscles damaged by exercise, by reducing inflammation. However, as The Physiological Society explains, there had not been any data — at least in humans — to back this up.

Dr Jonathan Peake and colleagues recruited nine active young men, aged between 19 and 24, who were doing resistance training 2-3 times a week. The researchers took muscle biopsies to compare the effects of cold water immersion versus active recovery on skeletal muscle after intense resistance exercise.

The study showed that changes in inflammatory cells, pro-inflammatory cytokines, neurotrophins and heat shock proteins (HSPs) did not differ significantly between the two recovery treatments.

These findings indicate that cold water immersion is no more effective than active recovery for reducing inflammation or cellular stress in muscle after a bout of resistance exercise, the research team concluded.

Commenting on the study, Dr Peake said: “As cold water immersion may not be the most effective strategy, athletes across various sports will need to re-think their strategies to minimize inflammation in the muscle.”

However, the research does not completely rule out cold water immersion in post-exercise recovery.

Dr Peake added: “More work remains to be done to establish whether other combinations of water temperature or duration of immersion produce different physiological effects in skeletal muscle and other soft tissues after muscle-damaging exercise.”