To ice or not to ice? That is the question. For such a mundane solution, water has some pretty fascinating properties. It can heat homes and power cities. It can transport us across the world.
Indeed, water can literally move mountains! But as most relevant to us here as athletes, it keeps our bodies running the way they should.
Water, however, is much more than the solution that keeps our blood volume, solute concentrations, and overall levels of hydration in balance. Water can also be an extremely useful physical and physiological tool for athletes to keep in their proverbial toolbelts.
In this article, we’re going to take a look at how simple water baths, both hot and cold, can facilitate athletic recovery. So keep reading to find out the best practices and techniques to use in order to leverage the unique properties of water to facilitate maximum recovery from each workout you do.
You may just find it’s the missing ingredient you need to take your performance to the next level.
General effects of icing
It’s no secret that athletes have used ice to treat sore joints and muscles for a long time. Indeed, “icing it” is perhaps the most commonly recommended treatment for any athletic ailment. And this is for good reason.
But to understand how ice baths help facilitate athletic recovery, it’s important to first understand the larger effect that ice has on the body overall.
Because ice is so cold, it has two main painkilling effects on the body. One is superficial and the other is more substantive. We’ll begin at the surface.
Ice acts as an acute (localized) painkiller first and foremost by dulling the sensory neurons that it comes into contact with. Say, for example, you suffer a sprained ankle. That injury is going to hurt for a variety of reasons, but one reason is that the nerves in your ankle are firing like crazy to tell your brain that something is wrong.
Putting ice on the ankle reduces the sensitivity of those local nerves, thereby reducing the frequency and magnitude of pain signals they send to the brain. The result is a temporary reduction in localized pain.
Second, icing facilitates some substantive healing of the injury, as well. It doesn’t take an advanced degree in exercise physiology to understand that a temporary reduction in pain does not necessarily equate to an injury being healed.
Still, icing an injury can help some injuries actually heal.
Consider, for example, an inflamed iliotibial band (the “IT band”). This injury is the bane of athletes everywhere and can take a long time to heal without the proper treatment.
Inflammation is caused in part by the body releasing a class of hormones called cytokines. These molecular messengers are essentially designed to alert the body to the site of an injury so the body can direct nutrients and building materials there to heal it.
This is a good thing, and we’ll touch on this more a bit later. But for now, we’ll focus on how it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.
Just as a construction site only needs so many loads of lumber delivered for the building that’s being constructed, the body only needs so much inflammation to know there’s an injury that needs healing.
Icing helps reduce excess inflammation by reducing the number of cytokines the body produces. This goes a long way in helping an injured area no longer hurt after an injury is healed.
Benefits of ice baths after workouts
Just as icing an injury is a time-honored treatment method for athletic injuries, the ice bath is, as well. Ice baths take the concept of icing an injury and apply it to the entire body.
By submerging the body in a tub full of ice-cold water, all the surface neurons become desensitized, providing much-needed relief after a hard training session.
Some athletes, however, use ice baths thinking that they actually speed up the recovery process and help the athlete get ready for more hard training sessions sooner than they would otherwise be able to.
To be perfectly clear, the science on this idea is inconclusive. Some studies have suggested that ice baths do, in fact, speed recovery, while others have found no causal or corollary link.
Still, there’s something to be said for the placebo effect, which has been shown time and time again to be a very real phenomenon with very real consequences.
General effects of heat
The heat has some equally fascinating effects on the human body. From an athletic standpoint, heat’s most common use is probably as a muscle relaxer. If you’ve ever had a cramp while training or competing and gone to the trainer, one of the first things the trainer likely gave you (after water or a sports drink) was a heating pad.
We all know that heat helps solid matter relax (i.e. melt) into its liquid form. Likewise, heat helps our muscles relax, too. Cramping is often caused by electrolyte imbalances that cause our muscles to contract and not let go.
Well, heat helps encourage cramped muscle fibers to release their grip on neighboring muscle fibers. This, in turn, helps the cramped muscle relax, dissipating the associated pain.
Secondly, just as the ice had some substantive healing properties, heat does as well. We mentioned earlier that inflammation is a good thing, as hard as that may be to believe.
Well, if and when you next encounter a bout of acute tendonitis or a sore IT band, take a second to observe how the injured area feels to the touch. You’ll likely notice that it feels hot!
This increased temperate is the result of a variety of physiological factors, but it has the effect of facilitating healing by helping more nutrients and building materials reach the site of the injury.
When a substance heats up, the molecules that comprise that substance move faster and more vigorously through space. Thus, when the site of an injury is hotter than other parts of the body, it encourages blood to flow to that area, bringing along valuable nutrients in the process.
Benefits of hot baths after workouts
Hot water baths are like a heating pad for your entire body. Think about how nice it feels to dip into a hot tub after a long day of hiking or skiing.
In this sense, one of the main benefits of hot water baths for athletic recovery is the psychological benefit the athlete derives from relaxing in a nice, hot tub of water, often listening to the relaxing gurgle of the jets in the process.
It’s important to keep in mind, however, that hot baths can make an athlete sluggish and they can also lead to dehydration. For these reasons, it’s important to use hot baths in moderation.
It’s generally a good idea to avoid hot-tubbing for too long in the hours or even the day before a major competition or a key workout. Save the hot tub, rather, as the reward for a job well done.
Although too many full-body hot baths can leave an athlete slow and lethargic, localized hot baths can offer some real physical and physiological benefits for acute injuries, especially when combined with icing the injury first.
Recall that icing desensitizes local nerves and reduces inflammation. But also recall that some inflammation is necessary to proper healing. For this reason, soaking an injury a hot bath immediately after icing can go a long way toward recovering from an injury.
The icing dulls the pain, while the heat immediately afterward helps your body know there is still an injury that needs its attention.
The bottom line
At the start of this article, we set out to answer the question of whether an ice bath or a hot bath is best after a hard workout?
Well, the answer, it turns out, is “it depends.” If you’re feeling particularly sore or your core temperature is high after a hot workout in the summer, an ice bath could help you recover.
If, on the other hand, you’re feeling mentally as well as physically exhausted, a soak in the hot tub could be just the thing to help get you back in the proper headspace.
While the jury is still out on whether ice baths help athletes recover faster, there’s no question that they have a place in any comprehensive training plan.
Likewise, while athletes likely should avoid hot water baths in the time immediately preceding key training sessions and competitions, they are an equally useful component of any athlete’s training plan.