Bin the painful ice baths - opt for a gentle cool-down instead, warn experts
Painful ice baths, championed by top sports stars, including the Irish rugby team, may be no better than a cool-down to reduce inflammation in muscles after a hard workout.
New research suggests athletes who endure the freezing dip should re-think the agonising treatment and opt instead for gentle exercise to calm inflamed muscles.
The findings from scientists at Queensland University of Technology, published in the 'Journal of Physiology', are expected to be studied by physiotherapists here whose job is to help athletes recover from a gruelling match or training session.
The chief investigator, Dr Jonathan Peake, said: "Considering the discomfort associated with ice baths, athletes may be better off doing a light warm-down after their training sessions or competitive events."
The study involved nine physically active men aged 19 to 24 who were asked to undertake resistance training three times a week. One group jumped into an ice bath afterwards and the other did a cool-down on an exercise bike.
Those who took the ice bath sat in 10-degree water up to their waists for 10 minutes.
Commenting on the research, Grainne Wall, a chartered physiotherapist in Tallaght Hospital in Dublin, said there is definitely a lack of evidence to support the use of ice therapy in reducing muscle inflammation.
"However, there is evidence to suggest that it leads to a perceived recovery.
"Athletes report a reduction in pain with the use of ice," she said.
"There needs to be more studies carried out to confirm if we should be using this or not.
"We need to be careful in relation to the long-term effects of ice treatment. They have not been established yet," she added.
"The therapy seems to decrease muscle soreness.We need to question are we getting a good benefit from it long term."
The idea behind the ice bath is that it causes blood vessels to tighten, leaving the legs feeling cold and numb.
Cold water reduces muscle temperature and blood flow.
This was thought to enhance the repair of muscles which have been broken down and damaged during exercise.
However, in the study, strength and muscle mass, as well as the size of individual muscle fibres, increased more in those who opted for exercise than the ice bath.
Ms Wall said: "Athletes can feel better after using it. This is subjective. But the objective effects on the muscle long term are not clear.
"So it appears to be useful for athletes to use this ice therapy to decrease perceived pain and muscle soreness.
"But you would be careful about prescribing it over a long period of time."
It is used here by sports people who have regular heavy training sessions.
"If there is an athlete who uses ice a lot, it might affect the overall building of muscle over time," she added.
As an alternative, sports people can do a slow cool-down such as cycling on an exercise bike for up to 20 minutes.
Devotees of ice baths include UK Olympic champion Jessica Ennis and tennis champion Andy Murray.
He famously posed in an ice bath in July clutching the Wimbledon trophy and is dedicated to this post-match routine.
Soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo said he took ice baths at 3am in the morning while playing for Real Madrid.
For those who cannot give up the ice bath, the researchers say that they should use them sparingly.Otherwise they are not worth the torture.