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Think ice baths help your body recover? Think again!

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Do you take an ice bath after training? Many athletes swear by them as a way of boosting the body´s recovery processes and preventing injury.

But new research from Australia pours cold water on the conventional theory that ice baths help speed up recovery.

Researchers at the University of Queensland and Queensland University of Technology (QUT) found that cold water immersion after strength training hindered muscle adaptation, and an active warm down is more effective in building muscle strength and mass.

The study involved 21 physically active men who did strength training two days a week for 12 weeks. About half of the group had a warm down on an exercise bike, while the rest took a 10-minute ice bath at 10 degrees Celsius.

At the end of the study, muscle strength and mass had increased more in the active warm down group than in the ice bath group.

The researchers also took muscle biopsies from the men after they had performed single-leg strength exercises followed by either an ice bath or active warm down. According to a report by QUT, this revealed that the activity of satellite cells, akin to muscle ‘stem cells´, and pathways needed to build bigger and stronger muscles were “blunted” up to two days after exercise in the ice bath group.

“We found that cold water immersion after training substantially attenuated, or reduced, long-term gains in muscle mass and strength,” said Dr. Llion Roberts from the University of Queensland.

“It is anticipated that athletes who use ice baths after workouts would see less long-term muscle gains than those who choose an active warm down. At this stage we are unsure why cold water immersion had this effect, but a reduction of muscle blood flow could be one mechanism.”

Dr. Jonathan Peake from QUT´s School of Biomedical Sciences said the findings suggest that athletes should avoid the use of ice baths — at least after strength training sessions.

“This is the most comprehensive study of its kind and the results suggest individuals who use strength training to improve athletic performance, recover from injury or maintain their health, should reconsider using cold water immersion as a recovery aid,” he said.

The research has been published in the Journal of Physiology.