In recent years, ice baths have been all the rage for recovery in power sports. From professional hockey players to high school endurance athletes, the jump from the field to the ice-cold tubs has become routine. Why? Because modern science has touted the benefits of anti-inflammatory methods to speed recovery and prevent illness and injury that can result from chronic inflammation.
Having several clients that have neither the time nor the convenience of post-exercise ice baths, this past summer I decided to do some research on alternatives. I will also disclose here an additional motivation: I personally hate ice baths and was looking for an alternative for my track cycling sprint workouts. What I found was a slew of studies on ice baths – all inconclusive. In fact, some relatively large studies showed that the now-accepted “active recovery” (aka cool down) period post-exercise is just as effective, if not more so than ice baths.
Not only have studies questioned the efficacy of the ice bath, but the latest research now shows the importance of inflammation post-exercise. This also questions the use of anti-oxidants, such as vitamins C and E, much to the chagrin of cyclists that pound recovery drinks high in antioxidant vitamins.
How can this be? Let’s look at the science. After a tough workout, your body goes into a state of inflammation, particularly in the muscles that have been most taxed. This makes your immune system drop, which in turn triggers your body to push that very same immune system to go into high gear creating what we in exercise science call “super-compensation.” Thus, the more stress on your body, the higher the response to the inflammation. During this phase of super-compensation, you body doesn’t just heal but, for lack of a better term “overheals,” giving you more gains than if you had blunted the anti-inflammatory response.
So, next time you work out, instead of suffering through an ice bath and a slew of antioxidants that may cause stomach upset, take 5 minutes to spin out easy on your bike or take a light jog and consume plenty of water along with some protein and carbs. Then you can take a nice hot bubble bath as you sip on your favorite beverage, knowing that you’re actually ahead of your competitors.