We are adding ice cold water to our recovery methods.
We have a lot of methods and tools for helping people to recover from workouts and from injuries more quickly than if the individual just simply rested without any conscious work. Foam rolling, compression floss, using devices like the Marc Pro, compression sleeves, deep breathing exercises, oxygen chambers, infrared room and saunas...the list goes on. And all these methodologies work in their own way to stimulate deep relaxation, or to increase blood flow, drain swelling, increase oxygen consumption and just simply boost healing in general. However, none of these tools can reasonably do all of these things all at once, and the tools can only affect specific parts of the body at a time. Unless of course you submerge yourself into a tub filled with ice water.
Using ice baths has been controversial for a while, and there is rather limited and inconclusive research on the efficacy of using icy water for recovery. Yet people all across the world, for many years, swear by its efficacy for decreasing soreness after workouts and quickening healing. If you watch the Crossfit Games, you can often witness the professional athletes soaking in ice tubs between their workouts. But rather than looking at anecdotal evidence and poorly performed research, it may be more beneficial to look at what effects icy water has on the body, and how those effects can be used towards a specific, known, objective. In this case, the objective is always to recover faster and more effectively.
When people talk about whether ice baths are effective are not, it always reminds me of when people talk about stretching before and after a workout. Some people are for it, some are against it. This is because it SEEMS like a good idea that if I stretch a joint around, it will become looser, be able to move in a greater range of motion, and therefore I will be able to move more powerfully. However, there has been plenty of evidence over the years indicating that static stretching before workouts has virtually no effect on preventing injuries such as muscle strains. Meaning that people can do all the stretching they want to, they are still periodically getting injured while playing their sport or exercise. This is widely known. It is significantly more effective, and relevant, to perform a series of movements similar to what you will be practicing and moving through full ranges of motion at varying and increasing intensities. So why do people continue doing simple, ineffective static stretching for a warmup? Simple. They don’t really know any better. We will continue to do what we have always done until there is an actual need to change. And the individual has to believe in the change to adopt it, and they have to want to make a change. But often, there is no WHY for doing things differently. Same thing for using ice baths after a workout. WHY would I intentionally make myself so uncomfortable without any clear, concise, specific reasons?
Where does your belief come from?
It is largely up to the coach to provide the beliefs for the athletes to follow. But if the coach cannot adequately explain why things are done, the athletes may or may not believe that belief themselves. The athlete may blindly follow, and just trust that everything done is done for a purpose. He or she doesn’t have to know that purpose. They will just simply follow. Others will ask why and want to understand before following through with a task. And jumping into 10C/50F water hurts. At least at first. So if you take an athlete and have them submerge into an ice bath after the workout, without concise and specific reasoning, they may listen and just simply take it. Or, they may question its purpose and be more prone to just getting right out. Either way, the methodology is well off. And since the research regarding this topic is so inconclusive, it can be difficult for coaches to understand it themselves, much less impart that knowledge to their athletes in ways that can be understood. And so it becomes “Do it because that is what I say to do. It will help because I think it will.”
This is a big problem. Especially since ice water can kill you.
So let’s begin with why. Why would you want to lay yourself down, up to your neck, in a tub filled with water and enough ice to make it about 10C/50F degrees? The why is because it will drastically reduce your healing time, lead to less soreness and inflammation, will teach your body to better use oxygen, which means more fat is burned and metabolism is even higher overall, and because it allows you, over time, to better tolerate both cold and hot weather which will make working out outside easier year around. That’s a nice list of reasons. So there is your why, but HOW does this even work? How can getting into icy cold water do anything to make your muscles heal faster and to burn fat?
How this happens depends heavily on how you prepare and handle yourself before, during, and after the process. Lack of preparation can lead to nothing but severe discomfort, shock, and in extreme cases, death. Yes, staying in 10C/50F water can and will kill you if you do not know what you are doing. Hypothermia is a real threat if you aren’t taught how to go about cold temperatures. Hypothermia means that your core body temperature drops below 35C/95F and is kept there. Normal body temperature is about 37C/98.6F and going into 10C/50F water will lead your body to balancing out towards that cold temperature. Your internal organs will begin to shut down, you will become numb across your whole body, incapable of feeling anything but cold and incapable of moving very quickly. So if cold water does this to you, how in the world can it help your fitness and your recovery and health?
Cold water does things to you. If you don’t understand these things, things get bad.
It is important to understand here that there are two major paths to take with handling cold water immersion. You can either jump in, clench your teeth, and just take it. It’s like if you get in a fight, you can just simply stand there and get punched repeatedly in the face. If you can take it, good for you. The assailant will eventually get tired. Maybe that will work for you. You will be bloody, parts of you may break, and there will be a lot of pain. Or you can breathe, move, and adapt to the situation by fighting back.
Your breath is the key to making ice water immersion work for you. Pretty much everyone will notice, whether they do a full body dunk, or just have cold water poured suddenly on their back, that cold water takes your breath away. Often, people will gasp, taking the massive inhale but not being able to exhale easily. And then the breathing becomes incredibly fast and shallow as long as the cold water is being applied to their body. This is where proper preparation comes into play.
Breathing makes all the things better.
All breathing is not created equal. How you breathe matters, and how you control your breath can drastically change your entire physiology in a multitude of ways. Basically, there are three different ways of breathing and the difference is the proportion of exhale to inhale.
You can breathe with your exhale and inhale aligned and lasting the same duration. 5 second inhale, and then a 5 second exhale for example. This is neutral. This means it alone will not really influence the sympathetic nervous system (increased stress response) nor will it impact the parasympathetic response (increased relaxation). It just keeps you right in the middle.
You can also breathe with a bias on the exhale. So imagine taking a 5 second inhale, but a 10 second exhale. This is a breathing pattern for stimulating relaxation. Part of the reason for this is that the diaphragm, your big, primary breathing muscle that skirts all around the inside of your ribcage, slowly massages over the vagus nerve during deep breathing. The vagus nerve is your primary nerve for creating the sensations associated with relaxation. Decreased heart rate, lower body temp, lower blood pressure, increased digestion, healing, immunity and many other things. As this nerve becomes stimulated, it increases these sensations and effects.
On the flip side, having a bias on the inhale, creates the opposite effect. So imagine breathing in for 5 seconds and exhale for 2 seconds. Try doing that for a solid minute. The inhale probably won’t be a full 5 seconds after the first few breaths. That is fine. Because it is physically impossible. But keep trying to take a big inhale. This will quickly produce some different results that you can easily feel within minutes. The vagus nerve will not be as stimulated, so there won’t really be a relaxation response. Rather, it will be a stimulating effect for the whole body in the way of a stress response. As you breath in quickly and deeply, but only partly exhale, your lungs will fill and remain filled with oxygen. This will speed up how quickly oxygen gets absorbed into your bloodstream. That’s really important, but I'll talk more about that later on. Every time you inhale, your heart rate will speed up. Exhaling will lower your heart rate over time, but as the exhale is being limited, there will be a bias towards an increased heart rate throughout the time of breathing like this.
Control your breath. If you don’t, you can’t control your body.
You may notice that this type of breathing, with a big inhale but small exhale, looks just like a mechanism that can happen during a stress response, or an anxiety attack or even during an asthma attack. It looks like hyperventilation. You can also see this happen to people who submerge themselves suddenly in 10C/50F water without proper prep. But in this case, we are hyperventilating in a controlled way. It is not happening as an uncontrollable reflex, but rather as a conscious, controlled, intentional preparation. Performing this type of breathing for a few minutes before going into that cold and icy water can may or break the experience for you. It is the single most important aspect that allows your body to effectively FIGHT the cold, rather than just trying to deal with it or ignore it. Which, as I alluded to earlier, can and will kill you if you aren’t smart about it. Being out in 10C weather, not even water, just out in the open air, can kill people if they aren’t appropriately dressed or conditioned for that temperature. This practice is never about IGNORING the cold. It is never a case of detaching yourself from the cold. It is about facing it head on.
How does hyperventilating help you? First, I want to state that I have seen some people in the fitness world refer to it as superventilating when done in a controlled way. Hyperventilating has a negative connotation. So from now on, the term super-ventilating will be used. [In this case, as prefixes, hyper- and super- mean the exact same thing. Which is just “Above” or “Over”. So super-ventilating literally means “over-breathing” or breathing above what is normal.] Superventilating creates a stress response. This means that it will cause your body to release cortisol and therefore adrenaline. Now cortisol and adrenaline have very interesting effects on the body that coincidentally provide a massive help with being able to tolerate the cold. And again, we are trying to make this article as objective as possible. Just looking at the fundamental facts regarding how certain chemicals affect the body. Adrenaline increases blood pressure. It does this via what is called vasoconstriction. Vaso- referring to blood vessels (think vascular) and constriction means to make tighter. So as your blood vessels become tighter, there is less space for blood to move through, but the pressure from your heart increases as adrenaline also increases heart rate. Therefore, the speed of blood flow greatly increases. This creates more friction along the walls of your blood vessels which creates more overall body heat.
Stress is not bad. Stress is the mechanism that drives adaptation.
When your blood pressure goes up, if there is any stagnant blood flow (see varicose veins) or swelling, there is going to be extra pressure going through these areas. The extra power in the blood flow can help to get these fluids moving. And remember how we mentioned earlier that by holding more oxygen in your lungs with your massive inhales, this also increases the amount of oxygen available to diffuse into your blood supply? Couple that with the increased blood flow, and suddenly more oxygen can get all throughout your body and your muscles. A big part of that this means is that there can be a massive increase in aerobic metabolism. Aerobic metabolism just simply means the collective chemical reactions in your body that chiefly use oxygen molecules to complete their reaction. Many of these reactions, the ones a bit more related to exercise and the topic of this article, are used in order to fuel production of ATP. Adenosine Tri-Phosphate. You may have heard of this before. ATP is regarded as the universal energy currency for virtually all animals on Earth. Essentially, it is a molecule with a bond known as a “high yield” bond. This means that when this molecule breaks, it is a powerful break. Imagine the difference in energy yielded from burning a sheet of paper as opposed to burning a similar sized piece of wood. The wood will release much more energy (fire) than the paper. It has a much more rigid structure that is ideal, compared to simple paper, for releasing heat as the molecules that make it up break down violently.
That is really all heat is. Certain things can vibrate or break apart, and as they do they create movement. If that movement is high enough, it becomes hotter relative to what is around it. An electric stove hob is often made with something like sand or another material with a high resistance to electricity. Encased sand has an electric current run through it, and because the electricity cannot move easily through sand, this makes the sand vibrate like crazy. This makes it super hot, hot enough to cook food and boil water. It is a similar, though a much different, mechanism that creates chemical heat in our blood. As ATP gets broken down in our cells, it creates a lot of movement. Essentially it is a tiny explosion. The process glycolysis, which is the aerobic system which breaks down simple sugar in order to create ATP, is a combustion reaction. Just like the engine in your car is probably an internal combustion engine, which ignites petrol to create a contained explosion to create motor movement, the break down of ATP is powerful enough that it just simply gets all other molecules around it moving. (The only reason glycolysis may not ever be called a combustion reaction is that is happens too slowly for there to be a respectable explosion or fire. Also, if that were the case, we would die. Or we never would have been born to begin with.) But really, that is all body heat is. A lot of movement and vibrations in one area relative to another area. This is why if you fill a tub with hot water, when you first put your hand in, it may hurt. Your hand at rest, will not be as close to the temperature of the water. Keep your hand in and the blood flow in your hand will increase. Meaning the temperature in your hand will increase. Now there is less difference between the heat of the water and the heat of your hand. You no longer perceive the water as being as hot even though the temperature of the water may be exactly the same as it was to begin with. The temperature in your body increased, and that is what will make that water more manageable to work with. It’s the exact same deal with cold water.
Your breath fuels your body.
But that heat needs fuel. ATP is the fuel for that heat, and oxygen is the fuel for the ATP. Breathe deeply, you increase oxygen supply and make ATP production much more efficient. So the method for getting your body ready for ice water, and able to utilise its effects in a healthy way is to begin with this sort of superventilating breathing. Breathe in fully, as full as you can. And just let it go but only for a few seconds. Perhaps start with an exhale half the length of the inhale. This will stimulate adrenaline production and will saturate your blood with oxygen. Your body will now be much more prepared for being able to tolerate the cold water. When you are first starting off with this, the next step is going to be incredibly difficult. And this is, in my opinion, the MOST important moment of using an ice bath. Jump into the ice water quickly, covering yourself up to your shoulders, and take ten breathes EXACTLY like the ones you were doing before you jumped it. So breathe a big, huge, inhale. Big as you can, and let it out for just a few seconds. Continue that for at least ten repetitions. This will drastically help to keep you from losing your breath to the cold.
If you can continue this breathing pattern, you will feel just fine within a couple of minutes. If you lose your breathing, get out, keep breathing, get warmed up, and try again later. Your breath is the key. If you lose that key, the cold water will just hurt you and you will get minimal benefit from it and probably will just learn to hate it.
You have to keep this breathing pattern up for as long as you are exposed to the cold water. It will continuously provide the oxygen to fuel ATP production, and the adrenaline will get it through your body quickly. In addition to that however, you will now also be getting the benefits of the icy cold water! Adrenaline will increase blood pressure, but so will the cold water. And the cold water will have a much more widespread effect for this. Any part of your body exposed to the cold water will constrict. In terms of healing, we can see this as having the effect of clearing out swelling and stagnant blood flow. This leaves less waste for your body to clear out by itself when tissues are healed.
Making adaptations is what you are best at.
Another interesting effect is that the cold will create an even greater need for body heat. Just simply have the oxygen in your blood isn’t necessarily going to make too much change, and it is not just simply oxygen that creates ATP. There are processes that break down sugars and fats and proteins to derive the necessary chemicals to generate ATP and oxygen is what fuels these processes. So over time, as you repeatedly subject yourself to cold water, your body will become more and more efficient at going through these processes in order to generate more and more body heat. Our body’s are constantly working on adapting to any stimuli that they are repeatedly exposed it. Over time, hanging out for a few minutes in 10C/50F water is easy. And that is all you really need. This doesn't have to be done for 10-15 minutes or longer. Start with 30 seconds. Work up to 1 minute and then to 2 minutes. Go up from there if you wish, but it isn’t really needed unless you are specifically working on building up your endurance for sitting in cold water.
One more interesting tidbit is how this can affect your ability to manage both cold and hot temperatures. While they are not exactly the same, the ways your body deals with the cold are remarkably similar to how it deals with heat. Essentially, in both cases, your body raises its body heat. For the hot weather, your body temp raises to balance out with the outside temperature and you sweat to draw that heat out of so you do not overheat. At least not as quickly. And for the cold, your body also heats itself up to get further away, temperature wise, from the outside temperature. So there is potential for developing more of a tolerance for hot and cold weather with sufficient practice with ice baths.
Respect the cold water. Being ignorant about using it after workouts can be dangerous. The benefits are many and can be substantial but only if you learn to correctly tolerate it. Breathing with superventilation allows you to stay much warmer and in control of your body as it is exposed to the cold water.
I’m not going to point out a single bit of research formally done on this topic. Go to scholar.google.com and you can find many papers written on Ice Baths and Recovery. But not a single one covered being appropriately prepared. That means the research was shoddy and there is no reason to go by it. Instead, I’m going to follow an objective understanding of how breath and adrenaline affect the body and apply that to being used in cold water.
If you try these methods out yourself, here are some guidelines:
Practice the superventilation several times before trying it out in ice water. Do it on your back as well, as it can make you super dizzy. NEVER do this while driving, or operating machinery or while doing anything else. Seriously, just do it while laying down. Don’t be engaged in any other tasks except maybe timing yourself with a stopwatch.
Have a friend there with you. They will either be there to do it with you and/or encourage you along, or will make fun of you as a friend. Either way, having a buddy helps. It’s almost always more fun to suffer with your friends. Hence why Crossfit is so popular. Amongst other group workout classes.
Don’t consume drugs or alcohol with this practice.
Listen to your gut. If you need to jump out of the ice water, DO IT! This is NOT about IGNORING the cold. Don’t ignore it. Listen to your body.
Absolutely nothing in this article should be taken as medical advice. Talk to your doctor if you need permission to jump in cold water.
You don’t have to use ice water. Go stand in the shower and make the as cold as it will get. Probably won’t get as cold as 10C, but it will do well enough if that’s all you can do.
Something else you can try doing is just doing a quick dip in the cold water, say about 5-10 seconds, get out, continue breathing, and then go back in after another minute or two. It’s kinda like a warm up for it and can help you to get ready faster.
Have fun. Fitness should be fun. If you aren’t loving it, stop. Stop doing things that you hate. It ain’t healthy.