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While the concept of a post-workout polar plunge might not be appealing to everyone, an ice bath can be a game-changing post-workout recovery tool that anyone can take advantage of. “Plunging a single limb—or the whole body—into a tub of cold water for 10-15 minutes, is becoming an increasingly popular ritual for athletes as well as hardcore exercisers,” Elizabeth Gardner, MD, Yale Medicine sports medicine doctor and Assistant Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at Yale School of Medicine, tells Byrdie.
Ice baths, also referred to as cold water immersion or cold hydrotherapy, are a form of cryotherapy but not nearly as extreme. While cryotherapy treatments involve exposure to temperatures below negative 200, ice baths aren’t quite as arctic. Gardner explains that the recommended water temperature for an ice bath is actually 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit—still cold enough to chill out your body, but not literally to the point of freezing.
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When Should You Take An Ice Bath?
Before you hop in an ice bath, keep in mind that timing is crucial. So, when is the best time to immerse yourself in cold water? “Right after your workout,” Bowen maintains, “This is when your muscles are screaming to get cooled, and the healing can happen. If you wait too long, the process has already started.”
How Long Should You Stay In?
Gardner warns not to stay in an ice bath too long, or you should experience the potential downsides. “It is important to not stay in the ice bath for more than 15 minutes due to the risk of hypothermia and frostbite,” she warns, “If you notice that your skin is changing colors, then it is important to get out.”
While many professional athletes, bodybuilders, and physical fitness aficionados support ice baths as an effective recovery tool, “the hard evidence is mixed,” Gardner admits. However, she does maintain that there are several potential benefits of ice bath treatment.
Ice Baths Can Help Your Muscles Recover After a Hard Workout
Here’s how an ice bath works, according to Gardner: When you are exposed to cold water, your blood vessels constrict and get smaller. And when you get out of the water, the change in temperature causes them to rapidly re-open, which can help to flush the muscles' metabolic waste products. “This rapid dilation of the blood vessels also delivers much-needed oxygen and nutrients to the muscles, which in theory should help them to recover after a hard workout,” she points out.
They Can Prevent Muscle Soreness
Gardner also points to evidence that immersion in an ice bath after intense exercise can reduce the onset of delayed muscle soreness compared to basic rest. “This is thought to occur by decreasing inflammation,” she explains.
They Can Help Cool Your Body Down
One of the more obvious benefits of an ice bath? It will help your body cool down fast. One study published in the Journal of Athletic Training found that taking a cold shower (very similar to an ice bath) can help relieve exertional hyperthermia. At the same time, full immersion therapy was even more effective in reducing high body temperature.
They Can Boost Your Mental Health
Ice baths also offer potential mental health benefits. “Most people do not find the ice bath experience to be pleasant at first. In fact, it can be frankly painful,” says Dr. Gardner. “However, this improves with relaxing, focusing on your breathing, and even some distraction. Over time, many people will build up a tolerance for the cold and will come to find it an important part of their recovery process. “This resilience and adaptation have obvious applications elsewhere in exercise, sport, and life,” she points out.
They Can Improve Your Sleep
Dan Bowen, NPTI, NASM personal trainer and owner of Philadelphia’s Hit Fitness, explains that ice baths may help improve your sleep. The cold water can have a positive effect on the central nervous system, “which helps you sleep and feel better after spending ten to fifteen minutes in it,” he says.
They Can Reduce Risk of Injury
As Gardner pointed out, ice baths can assist with recovery and decrease soreness, which stimulates recovery. Bowen adds that this will help reduce your risk of injury.
They Can Help Prepare Your Body for the Next Workout
Additionally, Bowen points out that you are setting it up for future success by allowing your body to recover. “This allows you to be better prepared for the next workout, which can be of higher quality.”
They Help Can Boost Your Immunity
There is some scientific evidence that ice baths work as an immunity booster. One 2016 study published in the journal PLoS One found that people who take cold showers are almost 30 percent less likely to call in sick for work or school.
Butts CL, McDermott BP, Buening BJ, et al. Physiologic and Perceptual Responses to Cold-Shower Cooling After Exercise-Induced Hyperthermia. J Athl Train. 2016;51(3):252-257. doi:10.4085/1062-6050-51.4.01
Buijze GA, Sierevelt IN, van der Heijden BC, Dijkgraaf MG, Frings-Dresen MH. The Effect of Cold Showering on Health and Work: A Randomized Controlled Trial. PLoS One. 2016;11(9):e0161749. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0161749