Ice baths are a popular recovery method for many top athletes — including AFL and NRL players, and Hollywood celebrities. But in one of the most ironic findings in sports science, it now appears that while having an ice bath (or cold water immersion) after heavy physical activity may provide some recovery benefits, it may also result in large long-term reductions of strength and muscle growth.
Research by The University of Queensland and Queensland University of Technology has found that cold water immersion delays or inhibits satellite cell activity and suppresses the activation of an important enzyme after acute strength exercise.
One of the researchers, Dr Llion Roberts of UQ’s School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences, said “these effects may have been compounded over time to diminish expected increases in muscle mass and strength, despite the training.
“In one study the number of myonuclei per muscle fibre and the size of the fibres was shown to increase significantly for a group using active recovery, but not at all for the group using cold water immersion. We were surprised by the magnitude of the detrimental responses.”
While Dr Roberts warned against the use of ice baths for muscle growth, he said they could be used for positive results when recovery was the priority.