Should You Use Cold-Water Immersion Therapy After Exercise?

Man In Cold Water

If you train hard, you have undoubtedly experienced muscle soreness, stiffness, and fatigue for a few days after your workout. Sadly, delayed onset muscle soreness is no fun, especially after a brutal leg day!

We’ve all seen athletes bathing in ice baths after a hard training session. While this approach intuitively makes sense, as ice reduces swelling, pain, and inflammation, the question is, does cold-water immersion therapy improve your adaptation to exercise?

Cold-water Immersion therapy: a brief overview

One approach many athletes use to enhance their recovery is coldwater immersion therapy. Coldwater immersion therapy involves placing yourself in an ice bath (water temperature between 10-15oC) for about fifteen minutes immediately after your workout.

The idea is that cold water reduces inflammation, decreases DOMS, and thereby improves muscle recovery after exercise (1).

The effects of Cold Water Therapy on Strength and Endurance Training

What the Researchers Did

To assess the impact of cold-water immersion therapy on adaptation to exercise, Dr. Malta and Colleagues analyzed eight clinical trials that tested the effect of long-term cold-water immersion therapy on adaptations to strength and endurance training (2).

Adaptations to Strength Training

By far, the most important finding from Malta et al. is that cold immersion therapy has a significantly negative impact on all aspects of strength training (2).

Briefly, cold-water immersion significantly reduced the following strength parameters (2):

  • One-repetition maximum
  • Isometric strength
  • Strength-endurance
  • Explosive power

Thus, cold water immersion therapy reduces every aspect of strength and power performance when regularly incorporated within strength and power training programs (2).

Adaptations to Endurance Training

Fortunately, there’s slightly better news for endurance athletes. Cold-water immersion therapy had no effect on:

  • time-trial performance
  • average time-trial power
  • aerobic power

Thus, cold-water immersion therapy neither enhances nor impedes adaptation to endurance training.

Take-Home Message

Cold-water immersion negatively impacts strength and power training and has no beneficial effect on endurance training. Therefore, I strongly recommend against including cold-water immersion therapy in your strength training program.

However, if you are using cold-water immersion for other health reasons, you should keep your cold-water immersion as far away as possible from your strength training.

Cold Water Immersion Therapy Infographic

References and Further Reading

1.            A. F. Machado et al., Can Water Temperature and Immersion Time Influence the Effect of Cold Water Immersion on Muscle Soreness? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med 46, 503-514 (2016).

2.            E. S. Malta, Y. M. Dutra, J. R. Broatch, D. J. Bishop, A. M. Zagatto, The Effects of Regular Cold-Water Immersion Use on Training-Induced Changes in Strength and Endurance Performance: A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis. Sports Med 51, 161-174 (2021).

Acknowledgments

Images created by Ville Heikkinen and mihtiander

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