Are The Benefits Of Ice Baths Real? It Depends On What You Need, Study Finds

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Good news, athletes: A recent study says you might have reason to forgo those frigid ice baths.

Long thought to aid in athletic training, ice baths have become popular among professional and recreational athletes alike—even Lady Gaga takes a five- to 10-minute ice bath after her shows.

But new research by Maastricht University has found ice baths might actually hinder muscle growth long term, even if they do help with short-term recovery.

What researchers found.

First, the study notes there is evidence supporting the idea that taking an ice bath can help you if you're sore from working out. The cold water causes your body to reduce blood flow and thus reduces swelling and inflammation in the muscles.

However, those benefits come with a price.

The researchers looked at how ice baths affected protein within muscles by having 12 male participants complete leg workouts over a two-week period. After every workout, the participants put one leg in water around 46 degrees, and the other in "thermoneutral" water, or water close to their body temperature. 

At the end of the two weeks, the researchers found the leg that had been submerged in an ice bath had less protein generation than the leg that hadn't. In other words, the ice bath didn't actually help the muscle recover—it just made participants feel a bit better.

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So, should you take ice baths post-workout?

Both working out and eating protein naturally help the body generate protein within muscles, which helps condition them over time. For many, that is precisely the desired effect of working out: getting stronger through muscle conditioning. So if that's your goal, you might want to rethink hopping in a cold tub.

"Everyone exercising, whether they be weekend warriors or elite athletes, wants to get the most out of their workouts," says one author of the study, Cas Fuchs, Ph.D. "Our research doesn't discount cold-water immersion altogether but does suggest that if the athlete aims to repair and/or build their muscle, perhaps they should reconsider using ice baths."

Now, if you're trying to improve your fitness performance or build muscle but your body is in need of some relief, have no fear. There are lots of ways to help yourself recover after a workout that don't involve ice, like foam rolling and eating certain anti-inflammatory foods. Practicing yoga is a great ice-free option as well—just make sure to take it easy if you're super sore. Not only will it feel good to stretch your tight muscles, but improving your flexibility can help prevent injuries and boost your performance.

Bottom line: If leg day really has you aching, it's OK to take an ice bath every once in a while. But if you're serious about building muscle, it shouldn't be your go-to for recovery.

Ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE web class with nutrition expert Kelly LeVeque.

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