Knowing when to take the plunge is key to this debatable post-workout regimen

By Lili Narvaez | Lead photo by Robson Morga/Unsplash

It’s become an ordinary sight at the end of any long sporting event: tubs filled with water and ice at the finish line.

The first dip into an ice bath is shocking, but the cool sensation suddenly becomes soothing. How can something so cold make you feel so good?

It’s a jolt to the system, but ice baths have been proven to help you after a long, hard workout. When engaging in really intense exercise, you’re prone to getting tiny tears in your muscle fibers. Soaking those muscles in an ice bath mends the tears and helps in recovery.

Typically, you won’t feel muscle pain until a day or two later. Submerging into an ice bath immediately after a workout will reduce soreness once it hits later on. This is because ice baths cause the blood vessels to constrict, flushing lactic acid from the affected muscle tissue. Swelling can also be reduced. When your muscles begin to warm up, blood will flow in to begin the healing process.

ice bath

The many positive effects of this chilly recovery treatment make up for having to take that first icy plunge. In fact, you can perform better on race day if you submerge yourself in an ice bath after the tougher workouts leading up to the big event.

Despite all the good it can do to the body, not everyone should venture into icy waters. Ice baths are recommended only for those who have endured very strenuous workouts. An easy to average workout doesn’t require such an extreme form of recovery.

A word of caution: make sure to stay no longer within six to 10 minutes. An extended stay can be dangerous, especially when you’re new or haven’t quite gotten used to the cold temperature. Pace yourself. Increase the amount of ice gradually; the ideal temperature should be between 12 to 15 degrees.

A word of caution: make sure to stay no longer within six to 10 minutes. An extended stay can be dangerous, especially when you’re new or haven’t quite gotten used to the cold temperature

But ice baths aren’t always the go-to recovery methods. There are instances when you should opt for hot therapy instead.

Days after a workout, a hot compress is more effective in loosening sore and tight muscles. If you’re using heat to treat an injury, apply cold compress to the area first. And just like ice baths, heat should also be used in moderation, limiting it to just 20 minutes.

If you’ve soaked into an ice bath after a workout, refrain from taking a hot shower afterwards. Allowing yourself to warm gradually assists in the natural healing process. But a mixture of hot and cold may make your legs stronger: an ice bath after your workout and warm compress a day or two later. By then, lactic acid have been flushed out and a warm compress will be more soothing and effective.