Cold water immersion is a recovery modality often used by athletes in hopes of reducing the delayed onset muscles soreness brought on from strenuous exercise. It’s not uncommon to see entire teams taking ice baths following grueling practices throughout pre-season training camps. However, if you take a look at much of the research, the benefits of this practice are unclear as results have been contradictory. A common mantra among coaches is that; if the athletes believe that the ice baths are helping, than that’s all that matters. There’s no denying the power of the mind and the placebo effect. The current understanding of cold water immersion is that it may reduce soreness following strenuous exercise and it likely increases parasympathetic tone. Though these effects can certainly be beneficial in the short-term, much less is known about the more chronic effects. Though there is very little published data on the long-term effects of cold water immersion, there is some to suggest that adaptations to training may be reduced.
A group of German researchers recently investigated the long-term effects that cold water immersion has on strength in a group of 17 trained male college students. Both 1 and 12RM values were collected for the single-leg hamstring curl. The participants trained twice per week, performing the single-leg hamstring curl for 3 sets of 8-12 reps with 75-80% of their 1RM. If 13 reps were performed, the weight was increased for the next session. Follow up strength testing occurred after 5 weeks of training and again after a two week detraining period. After each workout, subjects immersed one leg in cold water (12°C) for periods of 4 minutes with 30 second breaks between cooling. The immersion procedure and control leg remained constant throughout the training period. Follow-up strength testing revealed a very small difference between the immersed leg and the control leg. On average, the control leg showed 1-2% greater increase in strength verses the immersed leg.
The practical significance of these results may depend on the level of athletes involved. In very elite level athletes, 1-2% changes can be meaningful, whereas in more amateur athletes, this is likely negligible. The authors contend that future research is warranted that measures the effects that cold water immersion has on higher level competitive athletes with more applicable training programs. It would be interesting to see how contrast water therapy (alternating hot and cool water immersion or showering) effects strength training adaptations as this method involves a much shorter cooling period compared to most cold water immersion protocols. Though the jury is still out on the matter of cold water immersion and more chronic adaptations to training, this study provides future direction for more research.
Frohlich, M. et al. (2014) Strength training adaptations after cold water immersion. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, E-Pub Ahead of Print.