Commonly referred to as an ice bath, cold water immersion (CWI) therapy is an old health remedy that has exploded in popularity on the fitness scene, particularly for individuals that have been engaging in excessive or high exertion exercise. Proponents claim that CWI offers a number of health benefits but is the science and research solid? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of utilizing cold water immersion therapy in your own fitness routine.
ADVANTAGES OF CWI
One of the most agreed upon benefits of cold water immersion therapy is enhanced recovery. A study published in Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews reviewed several clinical trials involving cold water immersion where subjects were placed in water temperatures averaging 15°C (59°F) for different lengths of time. Trial after trial confirmed that cold-water immersion does play a part in reducing muscle soreness after exercise.
Australian massage chain owner, Holly Hicks of Bodyline Health International likens the muscle soreness reducing qualities of to that of post-exercise massage. Ms Hicks recommends that athletes give due consideration to pain-reducing therapies for increased performance.
anything that can be done to reduce the impact of post-activity soreness, such as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is highly recommended. DOMS, as it is know, can inhibit an athlete’s ability to backup with repeat training efforts so removing, or at least reducing the soreness is extremely beneficial.
Due to the enhanced rate of recovery, many athletes may enjoy the benefit of improved performance without the delay caused by muscular mending. A study published the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine showed that subjects who were immediately exposed to cold water immersion following exercise demonstrated superior performance the following day when compared with subjects who did nothing to enhance recovery.
DISADVANTAGES OF CWI
Long Term Risks
Although cold water immersion therapy may help immediately after exercise, studies have failed to take into consideration the long term risks. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research demonstrated that long term use of CWI negatively impacted long term strength training adaptations. There may be several more serious risks that are associated with utilizing CWI for an extended period of time.
Although it is rare, hypothermia is a very real and very serious thing to consider when trying out cold water immersion therapy. Hypothermia is not immediate but may come much quicker than one would expect depending on the water temperature, clothing, and body type. When the human body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, you’re left with an involuntary cooling of the core and organs. Soon after, a person may lose consciousness or suffer a heart attack.
If you are going to begin utilizing cold water immersion as a tool for recovery and performance enhancement, it is recommended to start out slow. Try immersing yourself in an ice bath for 5 minutes. Keep doing so for a few weeks. After that, add increments of 3 to 5 minutes every 2 to 3 weeks. Do this until you reach 20 minutes. That is the absolute maximum we would recommend for anyone as hypothermia usually occurs around 25 to 30 minutes of cold-water immersion. Here is a breakdown to follow:
- Week 1: 5 minutes of CWI
- Week 2: 5 minutes of CWI
- Week 3: 5 minutes of CWI
- Week 4: 8 minutes of CWI
- Week 5: 8 minutes of CWI
- Week 6: 10 minutes of CWI
- Week 7: 10 minutes of CWI
- Week 8: 13 minutes of CWI
- Week 9: 13 minutes of CWI
- Week 10: 13 minutes of CWI
- Week 11: 15 minutes of CWI
- Week 12: 15 minutes of CWI
While it may be an excellent tool for recovery and performance, it is recommended to start out slow and listen to your body. If CWI doesn’t feel right or you begin to become ill, stop utilizing this technique immediately.