Ice Age: The Science Behind Cold Water Immersion

Feature by Jenny Wilson, Swimming World intern

EVANSTON, Illinois, February 8. IN the midst of record-setting winter storms and rapidly-falling temperatures, hot showers and warm fireplaces seem like a perfect remedy for just about any ailment. The last thing anyone wants to do is jump into a bucket of ice-cold water.

But across the country, swimmers lower themselves into freezing training room tubs and make trips to hotel ice machines so they can hopefully reverse some of the muscle damage they've amassed from the week's hard workouts or a couple of sessions at a championship meet.

Kristen Moores, a senior at the University of Virginia, is one of many who uses this practice religiously.

"I take ice baths a lot before dual meets and in between sessions at championship meets when I'm feeling really sore," Moores says.

But does cold water immersion, which according to Steven Hawkins, the Chair of Exercise Science at California Lutheran University, "is as old as athletic training itself," actually help muscle recovery?

Exercise physiologist Richard Lampman, a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, explains that after competing in a physically vigorous race or practice, swelling and micro-trauma in muscle fibers is not uncommon. Icing causes vasoconstriction of the blood vessels that reduces swelling and forces lactic acid back into the center of circulation so it can be metabolized. Once the body gets out of the cold, blood flow to the iced areas returns to normal, taking nutrients to the inflamed area.

"In concept, it is a good practice, although I don't know whether the research strongly supports it," says Hawkins.

While speaking with Swimming World, Hawkins went on to state that the research he has seen concerning physical benefits cuts both ways. Indeed, studies that compare athletes who ice-bathed with those who did not, find conflicting results in terms of whether cold water immersion actually improves performance. The science is not terribly conclusive either way.

So should sore-bodied swimmers skip out on the ice bath entirely? That decision lies with the athlete, and this may be one of the few instances in the sport where swimmers can replace the revered laws of science with their own personal preferences.

Hawkins says that, "there's zero evidence that it does any harm, and for athletes in particular the belief that something works is often as strong as it actually working."

The placebo effect has certainly withstood scientific testing.

Nationally-renowned sports psychologist Caroline Silby emphasizes the role that perception plays in the healing process, and says that "it's certainly plausible that belief in effectiveness of treatment might trigger some sort of physiological response."

Along with alleviating soreness, the ice itself can help psychological recovery as well. Lampman says that, "in addition to reducing swelling, sometimes with cold water you can have an increase of endorphins that gives you a euphoric feeling." That feeling of euphoria indicates why ice bathing has become somewhat of an addictive practice within the swimming world.

The short answer is, if you're enjoying your ice bath, then by all means continue. It certainly won't hurt your performance and it may even help it.

"I just like them because they make me feel better," says Moores.

On the contrary, those who absolutely despise the practice shouldn't hesitate to opt out—the science isn't concrete enough for the stress to be worth it.

Jennifer Wilson is a Swimming World intern who currently competes as a junior at Northwestern. She is a breaststroke specialist who is majoring in journalism.

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