How Long You Should Stay In An Ice Bath + Research-Backed Benefits Of Cold Therapy
Of course, there's more to it than simply filling a bath with ice water or plugging in your cold plunge tub and hopping in—for example: How long for an ice bath to actually be effective? Read on for everything you need to know about how to get the most out of your ice bath sessions.
What is an ice bath?
Keegan Horack, P.T., DPT, CSCS, explains that an ice bath is when you submerge your body in a tub of ice water for a set period of time. "It is thought to be a stressor that causes the body to push beyond its comfort level for positive physical and cognitive adaptations," he says.
Benefits of an ice bath:
Horack elaborates on the benefits of cold therapy below:
- Reduces stress: "Studies have found that the cold temperatures during an ice bath can stimulate your vagus nerve1, which has been shown to help you relax and de-stress," explains Horack. Taking ice baths regularly helps to activate cellular mechanisms and signaling pathways in your body that can shift the way it reacts to stress. This can be a game changer for those who deal with a lot of stress in their lives. "One mechanism is that our bodies release norepinephrine and epinephrine, fight or flight hormones, during an ice bath," Horack says. "The intentional exposure to these hormones allows us to learn to maintain mental clarity and a state of calmness while in a state of stress."
- Aids in muscle recovery: "Ice baths can change the way fluids like blood and lymph flow through your body," says Horack. He explains that, when met with cold water, your blood vessels constrict due to the cold and dilate once your body becomes warm again. This helps flush metabolic waste from the body while also allowing your muscles to get more oxygen and nutrients. "The drop in temperature reduces creatine kinases, which are enzymes released when muscle cells are damaged from an intense workout or injury," Horack adds. In fact, a 2022 meta-analysis in the Sports Medicine journal showed that cold water exposure is beneficial for muscle recovery4.
- Improves sleep: Ice baths have also been linked to higher-quality sleep. One 2021 study on athletes found that those who took a full-body cold-water bath after running on the treadmill had a better night's rest2.
- Supports mood: "Ice baths also trigger the release of dopamine, a hormone that elicits feelings of pleasure," states Horack. According to a 2023 study, taking a five-minute cold-water bath positively affected participants' mood, including less distress and nervousness and increased alertness5.
- Additional benefits: Horack explains that there are additional potential benefits of ice baths currently being studied. "[This includes] improved skin appearance as well as weight loss due to an increase in metabolism6 and the activation of brown fat tissue7 throughout the body, which helps your body to generate heat as it burns off white fat," he explains.
How long to ice bath
There is not enough research to confirm an exact amount of time each ice bath should be.
Both experts say, if you're interested in staying in longer, be sure to not exceed 15 minutes, even if you have particularly sore muscles. Staying in longer than 15 minutes can heighten your risk of hypothermia and frostbite.
"It is also recommended to have another individual present when you begin cold water immersion therapy, in case you need any assistance or experience any side effects," Owczarek adds.
Ice bath temperature and frequency
Temperature and frequency are also crucial to consider when getting started with cold water therapy. Try to keep the temperature within the 50 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit range (yes, even though it's called an "ice bath," the water isn't actually freezing).
Regarding frequency, Owczarek explains that typically two to three ice baths per week after intense workouts are the most beneficial. "Remember to slowly build up your time and frequency in ice baths as tolerated," she suggests.
How long should you wait to shower after an ice bath?
It may be tempting to jump right into a warm shower after an ice bath, but you should hold off. Owczarek recommends giving your body time to return to normal temperature on its own gradually.
"If you take a warm or hot shower immediately after, this could cause the body to go into shock," she explains. "It can also cause a rapid dilation of the blood vessels that were constricted in the ice bath, and this could cause some low blood pressure and dizziness and even passing out."
Potential side effects and risks of ice baths
Horack stresses that ice baths aren't suitable for those with circulation disorders or diseases, such as Raynaud's syndrome or peripheral vascular disease. Additionally, those who are pregnant or who have a history of frostbite, open wounds, recent surgeries, or heart problems should skip ice baths.
"Prolonged exposure can also result in heart palpitations and other cardiovascular events due to the constriction of blood vessels, rise in heart rate, and stress hormones," Horack says.
If you decide to take an ice bath, it's vital that you pay close attention to the water temperature, as you could experience hypothermia or frostbite if the water is too cold. Be sure to always consult with a doctor before deciding if ice baths are right for you.
How often should I ice bathe?
This will differ based on the individual, but Owczarek says typically two to three ice baths per week is the most beneficial. "However, remember to slowly build up your time and frequency in ice baths as tolerated," she says.
What should you do after an ice bath?
Allow your body to return to average body temperature before taking a warm or hot bath.
Should you take an ice bath for 10 or 15 minutes?
Horack mentions that one- to five-minute ice baths should be sufficient, whereas Owczarek says 10-minute ice baths should also work. Both experts agree you should never exceed 15 minutes.
Adding ice baths can have major benefits on your well-being. Not only can this form of cold therapy improve mental health, but it can also improve sleep, aid in muscle recovery, and reduce stress levels. Ready to get started at home? Check out our picks of the best cold plunge tubs.
Brittany Natale is a freelance writer who covers topics such as wellness, fitness, lifestyle, food, beauty, and more. After graduating with a B.S. in Advertising and Marketing Communications from the Fashion Institute of Technology, she started a career in writing and research. With over 8 years of experience, her byline often appears in publications such as SELF, Popsugar, i-D, Teen Vogue, Domino, Martha Stewart, and Eat This, to name a few. Born and raised in NYC, when she is not writing you can find her exploring the city, visiting her local library, or getting her steps in at The Met.