Let’s talk recovery; do ice baths or saunas actually work?

Recovery is a hot topic at the moment, ice baths and saunas being at the forefront of the conversation. 

But are they all they’re cracked up to be?

The idea behind these therapies is to help reduce inflammation, soreness, and muscle damage caused by intense exercise, thus allowing individuals to recover faster and perform better in subsequent workouts.

Cold Water Immersion (i.e. ice baths) 

While some studies have suggested that cold water immersion can help reduce inflammation and improve recovery times, other studies have refuted these claims, showing that repeat exposure to cold water can reduce muscle hypertrophy. 

Yes, you read that write… studies have actually found that consistent ice baths can minimise your hypertrophy/muscle growth gains!

Now most of these studies utilised ice baths within an hour of every training session. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the time or facilities to have an ice bath after every session! Therefore, the findings may not be applicable to most people.  The main take away is that regular ice baths may not be the go if hypertrophy is the goal, but an ice bath every few weeks for acute muscle soreness may help.  

Hot Water Immersion  

On the other hand, hot water immersion has been shown to result in a quicker return to contractile velocity, but its long-term effects on recovery remain unknown.

As for saunas, while they are known to increase blood flow to the muscles, their effects on recovery and muscle growth are not well-established. Some studies have suggested that sauna use may be helpful in reducing muscle soreness and improving cardiovascular health, whilst other studies have shown they may aid in muscle hypertrophy. As you can tell, more research is needed to confirm these findings.

Contrast Therapy (hot/cold)

Contrast water therapy, which involves alternating between hot and cold water, has also been studied extensively, but the evidence is mixed. Some studies have shown no significant long-term effects on performance or recovery, while others have suggested that a 1:1 split alternating between hot and cold water for 15 minutes may be beneficial.

So what are the current recommendations?

  • Cold water immersion (CWI): CWI may reduce inflammation and promote quicker recovery times, but other studies have refuted these claims, showing reduced hypertrophy compared to those who did not use CWI.
  • Cold versus hot water immersion (HWI): Research comparing CWI to HWI found that HWI resulted in a quicker return of contraction velocity, but its long-term impact on recovery is still unknown.
  • Contrast water therapy (CWT): Alternating hot and cold water also showed no significant long-term effects on performance or recovery.
  • Saunas: Saunas have mixed reviews in terms of their effects on recovery and muscle growth. While they aim to increase blood flow to the muscles, their effectiveness is still undetermined.
  • Current recommendations suggest a 1:1 split alternating hot and cold water for 15 minutes, but more research is needed to fully understand the effects of these recovery techniques on muscle recovery and growth.

Overall, while cold and hot water immersion, contrast water therapy, and saunas may offer some benefits for recovery and performance, their effects are not yet fully understood. It is important for individuals to experiment with these therapies and find what works best for their own bodies and fitness goals.

Chantelle Bailey  – BeFit Training Physio Double Bay

Chantelle Bailey – BeFit Training Physio Double Bay

Chantelle Bailey, a skilled physiotherapist in Double Bay, Sydney, excels in treating musculoskeletal issues through personalized assessments and evidence-based rehabilitation programs. With expertise in strength coaching for women and a special emphasis on sports-related injuries, Chantelle offers tailored solutions to help individuals achieve their goals. To schedule a consultation, click the link below.

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