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Ice baths: Are they worth it?

An interview with FHC’s personal trainer explores the relevancy and effectiveness of ice baths for medical episodes and recovery
Hannah+Halterman+holds+the+baton+in+her+hand%2C+as+she+focuses+in+and+prepares+for+her+first+race+of+the+meet.
Mallory Davie
Hannah Halterman holds the baton in her hand, as she focuses in and prepares for her first race of the meet.

Recovery. Many athletes and those who are physically active have all heard of this word. But in a world where sports and athletic activities are increasingly becoming more popular and widespread, misinformation runs rampant. Therefore, knowing correct methods of recovery can reduce the chance of injury, increase muscular hypertrophy and myofiber regeneration, or growth, and increase athletic performance.

The question is: Are ice baths beneficial to training and muscular recovery?

It depends of course on the situation.

[To deal with soreness], it’s not your best method.”

— Mr. Zalewski

According to Athletic Trainer Matt Zalewski, the athletic trainer at FHC with a Bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology, an emphasis in athletic training, and a Masters degree in sports rehab,  immersion less than three to four hours after intense exercise or a sports practice or game is actually detrimental to the recovery process, unless after, for example, a track or cross country member ran under intense heat conditions, where the runner might be having a medical episode and be medically required to take an ice bath.

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Mr. Zalewski said ice baths are the best way to dramatically reduce the body’s core temperature in only one to five minutes, 29 times faster in fact than exposure to frigid air temperatures.

“We actually have to submerge their body versus even putting IVs and putting them in air conditioning because it will bring the core temperature down so fast…then we let the paramedics go to work and give them the IVs and transport them to the hospital. It’s been proven that’s the number one way to survive a heat stroke,” Mr. Zalewski said. “That’s a situation where we will put them in an ice bath because there’s a medical reason for it. It’s a safety situation where we need to get their core back down for whatever reason their body can’t regulate.”

On the other hand, during exercise, myofibers(micro fibers) in your muscles get torn, and inflammation, the body’s response to these microtears, increases muscle volume and aids in the recovery process allowing the body to perform better afterward. Ice baths reduce inflammation, and therefore disrupt the body’s way of increasing muscle mass and strength. Depending on the reason for an ice bath, if to aid in muscle recovery, according to Mr. Zalewski, is not the sole purpose; ice baths are mostly useful to reduce inflammation three to four days after exercise if Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness(DOMS) has not decreased.

“If someone has soreness, especially early in the season, I will minimize [ice baths] until at least two weeks into the season. After that or when we get to playing games and they’re not recovering, they’re struggling two to three days [after], that’s when I’m putting them in an ice bath to push that inflammation out and really help in the recovery process,” Mr. Zalewski said. “[To deal with soreness], it’s not your best method. Really the best method is to get out and move the next day to do some sort of workout, whether that’s an upper body versus a lower by the next day or to do some dynamic motion or to get up to ride a bike. What pushes that swelling out is getting blood flow…that’s going to bring nutrients, to allow the body to rebuild itself.”

Additionally, ice baths for those with heart conditions can be dangerous. Therefore, Mr. Zalewski will monitor people while they’re in an ice bath to prevent any chance of a medical episode. This is why before trying ice baths for the first time, someone needs to be watching you if you have any adverse reactions. Mr. Zalewski details which parts of your body should be immersed if an ice bath is necessary.

“Your belly button down, it’s kind of your best utilization. Obviously the low back- we’ll sometimes get that [submerged] as well. If someone does have a heart condition and sometimes maybe [it’s] undiagnosed, if you submerge them to the point where it covers up the heart, they will get a [vasoconstriction: narrowing of blood vessels decreasing blood flow] which happens to everybody, but that could have an impact on them. So we can’t just fill [ice baths] up, put [athletes] in, and walk away,” Mr. Zalewski said.

Senior Hayden De Vilder, a varsity wrestler in the [weight class] who works out five days a week, taking the weekend off, regularly takes ice baths twice a week, and he notes it does decrease soreness. He sits in the cold water before adding the ice in to ease into the feeling instead of going head first. The feeling, De Vilder explains, will eventually feel normal.

“Obviously it sucks at first. When I first started doing them, it was horrible. You know, just sitting there. You can’t even do anything. It’s hard to distract yourself by going on your phone because I can barely move really but after a while, you get used to it pretty good. And then it becomes just like anything else. It’s just like a normal bath basically for me,” De Vilder said.

What they’re showing now is three minutes to six minutes is really the golden window of what you need. Anything above six, you’re just cold.

— Mr. Zalewski

According to Mr. Zalewski, an athlete three to four hours after working out or a match can take an ice bath, but it is recommended to take a cold shower first as ice baths are a more extreme treatment. A cold shower only needs to be around three to six minutes to have the desired effect.

“That’s going to be plenty cold enough for you to get some sort of reaction and to understand and see how you feel. And especially if you’re doing it more … to get the kind of dopamine reaction that you get from being in cold. What they’re showing now is three minutes to six minutes is really the golden window of what you need. Anything above six, you’re just cold. You’re not really gaining any benefit except for ego at that point,” Mr. Zalewski said.

De Vilder believes ice baths to be great for the mind.

“It’s very calming for the mind. Especially during a meet or tournament, after that, it can always be so stressful,” DeVilder said. “But as soon as you get done and get the ice bath, it’s almost like a calming sensation. It’s very peaceful; it can be very quiet, it’s just you and I think it’s great for the mind to recover and just relax.”

Junior Gavin Schlatter, a boys volleyball player who works out at max three times a day and has practices and open play all throughout the week, takes ice showers sometimes after tournaments and they make him feel much better.

“At my last tournament, I was sitting and I thought I was gonna pass out. I was so dizzy. So as soon as I got home I hopped in the shower. Had a nice long drink of water before the shower. It really helped me, I was no longer dizzy, didn’t have a headache, and felt great,” Schlatter said.

This story was originally published on FHC Today on May 2, 2024.