Human beings have been taking the plunge into ice baths for centuries now as a form of natural healing and therapy. Although many may find the thought of immersing themselves into ice-cold water to be a nightmarish scenario, there are a wide range of health benefits on offer for those brave enough to sink into the icy depths.
If the ancient Egyptians, Olympic athletes, and health-conscious individuals all agree that ice baths are worth doing – there must be something to the practice! In this article, we’ll be tracing the history of cold therapy and delving into the many benefits that an ice bath has to offer.
A Brief History of Ice Baths
Ice baths are not a modern obsession by any means. In fact, the ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks would take frequent ice baths to enjoy their therapeutic properties. Typically, ice baths were taken by high-profile pharaohs, and other extremely wealthy people to rejuvenate and heal their bodies.
Since then, ice baths have been used throughout history as a way to cure a range of ailments, reduce inflammation, and purify the body. The practice is now not just followed by the elite, it’s become a modern phenomenon that everyone has access to – whether that’s in their local gym or their very own plunge pool at home.
Today, ice baths are most commonly associated with athletes. After a particularly gruelling training session, it’s not abnormal to see an athlete dunk themselves into a cold bath in the hopes of reducing muscle soreness, speeding up recovery time, and generally enhancing their performance for their next session.
The Science Behind Ice Baths
Before you start taking cold plunges, it’s important to understand the science behind what makes ice baths so effective. An ice bath is something known as a ‘positive stressor’; something that pushes your body beyond its normal limits, so it’s forced to adapt physically and mentally.
Although the feeling of sitting in the icy water may not be the most enjoyable experience, most people feel a lot more energised and rejuvenated when they emerge. This is because cold exposure triggers important endorphins in your body that regulate stress, alertness, and energy.
In addition, while your body is in cold water, your blood vessels are constricting and redirecting blood flow to all your vital organs. This process, known as vasoconstriction, is the reason why ice baths reduce inflammation and muscle soreness.
Are ice baths good for you?
People have been plunging themselves into freezing baths of water for centuries now, so it must have some benefits for the body, right?
Cold water immersion is believed to have a variety of positive outcomes, including:
- Aiding in muscle recovery: Studies have found cold water exposure to be an effective recovery tool for athletes that engage in high-intensity exercise.
- Reduces stress: Cold water plunges trigger the vagus nerve which can help you to relax and de-stress.
- Boosts your mood and energy: Cold plunges release a variety of neurotransmitters – like dopamine – that will instantly improve your mood.
- Improves sleep: In one study of male athletes, it was found that those who took the plunge in ice baths were able to get better-quality sleep.
Ice baths are good for the body, both mentally and physically. But it’s important to note that ice baths are not beneficial for everyone, and it’s normally advisable to contact a health professional before regularly jumping into ice-cold water.
How long should you stay in an ice bath?
Most athletes will try to stay in an ice bath for around 10–15 minutes to enjoy the full range of benefits.
If you’re just getting started with ice baths, you don’t need to worry about staying in for a full 15 minutes. For your first session, you may only be able to stay in the water for 30 seconds before wanting to get out, and that’s ok. It’s important to build up your tolerance to ice baths and increase the time you spend immersed gradually, rather than aiming for the full duration right away, to prevent discomfort.
Should I take a hot shower after an ice bath?
You should not take a hot shower straight after having an ice bath as the quick change in temperature can cause a shock to your system. It’s better to let your body regulate itself and naturally warm up.
Should you take an ice bath before or after a workout?
Some athletes take ice baths after they’ve worked out to help with muscle recovery, whereas some prefer to use them before a workout to enhance their performance.
We spoke to Sean from SP-PT who said:
As a certified personal trainer with over 14 years of experience and an avid fitness enthusiast for over 18 years, I constantly seek ways to gain an advantage and improve my overall well-being beyond training alone. In September 2022, I began incorporating cold water plunges into my routine, and although it was initially challenging to maintain consistency, I have now fully embraced them, engaging in 3-4 sessions per week.
Interestingly, I’ve discovered that the psychological and nervous anticipation leading up to a cold water plunge is often more daunting than the physical act itself. This mindset translates remarkably well into exercise scenarios and has helped me redefine my perception of what it means to push through challenging situations.
For those who are considering delving into the realm of Cold-Water Therapy, my advice is to start gradually and aim for up to 60 seconds in moderately cold temperatures. Once you find this manageable and the initial shock factor diminishes, I’ve personally found that working towards 3 minutes at temperatures below 10 degrees Celsius strikes the perfect balance of difficulty and achievability, yielding maximum benefits.
There is some conflicting advice regarding the optimal timing for cold plunges, but I can offer a straightforward recommendation. Pre-training sessions pair well with cold water therapy; however, contrary to popular belief, the latest research indicates that post-workout ice baths do not expedite recovery. In fact, it suggests the opposite. Therefore, if you’re planning to take an ice bath after your workout, it’s advisable to wait at least 6 hours after your session concludes before immersing yourself.
Considering this, individuals who don’t exercise immediately upon waking should consider incorporating an ice bath into their morning routine. I personally find that starting the day with an ice bath sets a positive tone psychologically. After all, what could be a more challenging task for the day than plunging into ice-cold water for 3 minutes?
Are you considering an ice bath?
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