The benefits of ice baths

26 September 2014



Words by: Schalk van der Merwe, Biokineticist | Photos: Shutterstock


Over the past few years, the term ‘recovery’ has become a bit of a buzzword in the training world, with athletes always on the lookout for the most effective ways of recovering post exercise.

There are various ways of ‘recovering’ after a taxing workout. Elite athletes make use of massage, stretches, yoga, steam baths and swimming, all of which have great results. However, the preferred method of recovery after a game or race has become the use of ice baths or cryotherapy.

“So,” you may ask, “what is it that drives someone like Pat Lambie to submerge himself in a cold bath of ice water after a game, when all he really wants to do is relax with a cold drink and have a massage?” The answer lies behind what the icy water does for the muscles after a long day on the pitch.

To understand the value of an ice bath, we need to understand first what recovery is all about. In simple terms, it is about facilitating the quick recovery or reduction of stress on muscles, tendons and bones after exercise.

Think of your body like a formula one car. After a race, it gets a full overhaul. Engine, tyres and new parts, thereby readying it for the next race. Your body works in the same manner and needs to be fine-tuned after a heavy bout of exercise.

Your body facilitates recovery via the blood vessels that bring oxygen to the tissues and remove waste products (mainly lactic acid), which is accumulated during exercise. Too much lactic acid can cause your legs to become fatigued and feel heavy because it causes the muscles to function poorly. “So, how does submerging yourself into an icy bath counteract this?” I hear you ask.

When you get into an ice bath, the cold temperature causes the blood vessels to constrict, thereby draining blood from the muscles. After about 10 minutes, it causes the legs to become cold and feel numb. Therefore, when Pat Lambie gets out of the ice bath, his legs fill with ‘new’ oxygenated blood, which helps to invigorate the muscles and cells to function properly. By doing this, the inflammatory process caused by exercise is reduced and studies suggest that the soreness experienced after training is offset by using ice baths regularly.

Before you jump into an ice bath however, there are some guidelines to adhere to when using this method as a recovery tool.

Weightlifter Karyn Marshall taking an ice bath as part of athletic training. Photo credit: Dr. Dennis Cronk Hand


1. Build up to cooler temperatures. Rehab specialists all agree that one should gradually build up to temperatures of 12-15 degrees Celsius. You should be conservative initially and build your endurance because an ice bath can be a shock to your system. As you become more familiar with the technique, you can decrease the temperature.
2. Use the right gear. Your hands and feet are generally the most sensitive, so if your feet are sensitive then you could look at using a set of booties made from wet-suit material to make it more bearable. Runners are most likely to submerge only their legs, so their upper body will not be affected.

3. Recognise that thresholds do differ. Studies suggest that an athlete should stay in the water for between 5 and 10 minutes, but this is purely dependant on the athlete’s threshold and ability to withstand cold. As the person becomes more familiar with the process, they may be able to withstand colder temperatures for longer periods.

4. Seek to simplify. Find the most cost-effective and time-effective method of ice bathing. For example, fill a drum with some ice water and place it next to the field where you are practising, so you can submerge yourself immediately after your training session.


1. Don’t overexpose. Experts all agree that an athlete should not exceed 10 minutes in an ice bath. This is normally reserved for people who have some experience in using the ice-bath techniques. Between 6 and 8 minutes is generally regarded as the optimum period for submerging yourself, to have maximum benefit.

2. Don’t assume that the temperature always has to be the same. The water temperature doesn’t always have to be between 12 and 15 degrees Celsius. It can be slightly warmer and still provide you with recovery benefits.

3. Don’t rush for a hot shower. It is not always necessary to have a hot shower immediately after an ice bath. Allowing your body to warm up naturally again can be just as beneficial. It is sometimes recommended to just wear a warm shirt, have a hot drink or cover yourself in a warm towel and allow for a gradual warm up.

As with any new practice or routine, I would recommend you add ice baths as a new quiver to your recovery arsenal during a period of your season when you are not coming up to a key race, to see how beneficial it is to your body. Research is inconclusive as to the degree in which it does work, but it couldn’t hurt to try it out.

More information:
For more information or advice, email Schalk on

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