Ice Baths and Contrast Water Therapy Boost Recovery


Jumping into an ice water bath after a workout is a common practice for many athletes. Known as a cold water soak or cryotherapy, it’s used to recover faster and reduce muscle pain and soreness after intense training or competition.

In addition to ice baths, some athletes use contrast water therapy (alternating cold and warm water) to achieve the same effect. From elite runners to professional football and soccer players, post-workout ice baths are a common part of recovery routines.

Like many practices, it’s good to question whether this works. See what research has to say about the pros and cons of post-workout cold water soaks or contrast water therapy.

The Theory Behind the Post-Workout Cold Soak

The theory behind ice baths has to do with the fact that strenuous exercise can cause microtrauma, or tiny tears, in muscle fibers. This microscopic muscle damage is actually the goal of exercise because it stimulates muscle cell activity and helps repair damage and strengthen muscles ( muscle hypertrophy ). But it’s also been linked to delayed-onset muscle pain and soreness (DOMS), which occurs between 24 and 72 hours after exercise.

Ice baths are considered to:

  1. constricts blood vessels and flushes waste products, such as lactic acid, from affected tissues
  2. Reduce metabolic activity, slow down physiological processes
  3. Reduce swelling and tissue breakdown

Then, with rewarming, the increased blood flow is thought to speed up circulation, which improves the healing process.

Although there is no current agreement on the ideal time and temperature for cold soak programs, most athletes or coaches who use them recommend water temperatures between 54 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit (12 and 15 degrees C) and soak times of 10 to 20 minutes, with Up to <> minutes.

Evidence supporting the theory that cold water immersion benefits exercise recovery, the ideal time, and the optimal temperature is inconclusive.

Scientific Study Shows Pros and Cons of Ice Baths

Of the studies examining the effects of ice baths, cold water immersion, and contrast hydrotherapy on exercise recovery and muscle soreness, most provided inconclusive or conflicting results.

May suppress inflammation, but hinder muscle growth

Studies have shown that icing muscles immediately after maximal exercise suppresses inflammation, hinders muscle fiber growth, and delays muscle regeneration. A 2015 study determined that cold water immersion may actually disrupt the training adaptations that are key to an effective strength training program. 2 This would be bad news for athletes trying to increase muscle size and strength.

May reduce muscle soreness

A Cochrane review of 17 studies concluded that there is evidence that cold water immersion reduces DOMS compared with rest or no intervention. 3 There is not enough evidence to conclude whether it improves fatigue or recovery. The greatest effects were observed in running studies. All studies were of low quality, with no adverse reaction criteria or active follow-up of participants.

A review of 13 studies showed some evidence that water therapy was superior to passive recovery or rest in reducing recovery from exercise-induced muscle soreness, but the differences were small. 4 There was no difference in muscle soreness between contrast hydrotherapy, cold water immersion, active recovery, compression, or stretching.

May relieve pain

Soaking in cold water after a tough workout can provide temporary pain relief and may actually aid recovery—at least the athletes believe it’s faster. A 2016 study of jiu-jitsu athletes found that cold water immersion may reduce the perception of muscle soreness after a workout and may help lower lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) levels.

Alternating cold and warm baths (contrast hydrotherapy) can help athletes feel better and provide temporary pain relief.

Active Recovery as a Workout Recovery Alternative

While it’s clear that more research is needed before firm conclusions can be drawn on cold water therapy, active recovery may be the best option for athletes looking to recover quickly. In fact, a 2017 study showed that ice baths were no more effective at reducing inflammation than active recovery.

A 2016 research article determined that active recovery is often still accepted as the gold standard and arguably the best way to recover after a tough workout. 8 Low-impact exercise and stretching are still considered the most beneficial ways to relax.

How to Do Cold Water Therapy

Professional athletes often have access to special ice water baths in the training room; however, you don’t have to be an elite athlete to reap the potential benefits.

Ice bath

You can use a bathtub for cold water therapy at home. You may want to purchase a large 5- or 10-pound ice pack, but you can also use cold water from the tap. Simply fill the tub with cold water and, if desired, pour in some ice cubes. You can let the water and ice sit for a few minutes to get cold.

Some take the temperature before entering, while others may want to immerse the lower half of the body and adjust the temperature according to feel by adding more cold, ice, or warm water.

If you plan to try cold water soaks or cold water soaks after exercise, don’t overdo it. A review of studies found that the best routine is an 11- to 15-minute soak at a temperature of 11 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit (52 to 60 degrees Celsius). This should be enough time to reap the benefits and avoid the risks.

cold shower

Taking a cold shower for a few minutes is another way to practice cold water therapy. You can start with warm water and slowly transition to cold water, or you can stick to cold showers. This is probably the easiest and most time-efficient method of cold water exposure.

outdoor cold water swimming

Some people like to take a brief dip in cold water, such as a lake or ocean. Note that this is a potentially dangerous practice. Cold water can be mentally and physically shocking. 10 If you choose to swim in cold water, always have it with you. Be sure to warm up quickly afterward to reduce the risk of hypothermia.


Be aware that exposure to low temperatures may cause hypothermia. Always consult a health care practitioner before cold water therapy, and if you experience numbness, tingling, pain, or discomfort, remove yourself from the cold water.

Cold water immersion can cause severe stress on the heart and lead to heart attack and death. Exposure to cold water can affect your blood pressure, circulation and heart rate.

Because the cold can make muscles tense and stiff, it’s best to warm up well after about 30 to 60 minutes with a hot shower or hot drink.

Contrast water therapy (hot and cold baths)

If you prefer alternating hot and cold baths, the most common involves one minute in a cold tub at 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (10 to 15 degrees Celsius) and a hot tub at 99 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit (37 to 40 degrees Celsius) Two minutes, repeat about three times.

This method is called contrast water therapy (or CWT), and it can be used as a post-workout recovery method. A 2013 scientific review explored the benefits of CWT and found that CWT may be beneficial compared to passive recovery or rest after strenuous exercise.


Whether the science supports the ice bath theory or not, many athletes swear that ice baths after intense workouts help them recover faster, prevent injuries, and feel better. You can try it out and see if it works for you. But if you decide you don’t like it, skip it next time.

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