Is cold water good for your muscles?

Cold water may not have a proven physical benefit for muscle recovery, but for top athletes, the mental aspect of pushing boundaries and conquering extremes is crucial. Many athletes believe that ice-cold water helps them recover faster, but scientific research suggests otherwise. This article explores the debate and the placebo effect of cold water on muscle recovery for athletes.

Cold Theraphy
Growth Manager @ Icetubs

Better and better each time. Go for gold. The Olympic medal or first prize at a Dutch Championship. As an athlete, you want to get the best out of yourself and perform at the right moment. A moment when your physical and mental faculties join together and really have to give their all, since you want to win! One top athlete will get on a bike after training to finish the course, while another will go for the cold. But is the cold actually good for you? Is cold water good for your muscles?

You can find many different accounts about whether cold water is good for you

When you search the internet to find out about the benefits of cold water, you come across a lot of different things. For example, think about the mental benefits as well as physical ones. An ice bath helps you resist stress, it is good for your circulation, strengthens your immune system and helps your muscles recover.  In recent years, a lot has been said and written about the latter. Whether ice water is good for your muscles. The Finnish ice hockey team and marathon runner Datham Ritzenheim, for example, dive into cold water after each race, while other sports teams would not dream of it. How do things stand now?

British research has shown that it has no effect on recovery

After a huge physical effort, it is important to get rid of the built-up lactic acid, in order to enable the body to recover. Athletes frequently do that by cooling down (active recovery) or by building in a break (passive recovery) or even by plunging into an ice bath. The idea behind this is that by allowing your body to cool down to the extreme, your blood pressure increases and the blood vessels contract, which may allow for a more speedy recovery.Athletes experience less muscle pain as a result, and therefore can resume training sooner. This has been the subject of much scientific research and is still under study. British research has shown that taking an ice bath has no effect on the recovery of your muscle strength or from muscle pain within 24 hours after the training. There was a modest effect observable on recovery within 48 hours or on the creatine kinase values in the blood. But the ice bath did have a positive effect on explosive power 24 and 48 hours after the intense activity.  The high degree of fluctuations in the research, and hence the observation of blood levels, show that the benefits most likely are due to a placebo effect. The psychological effects are so important in this regard that an athlete thinks he or she has less muscle pain. The athlete's attitude is thus very important: do you believe you can win? Then you will win. Do you believe that it works? Then it works.

Passive and active recovery

Other research has compared the degree of recovery when getting into an ice bath: passive and active recovery. The findings show that recovery in the cold of an ice bath is better than passive recovery after intensive training. In practice, it remains that top athletes mostly do not opt for passive recovery.

The cold makes for less muscle recovery and growth

Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt, lecturer in ecological energetics and health, was involved in the research conducted by the University of Maasticht. He explains that during a major physical exertion, there is damage to the muscles. The process releases substances in the body that enable new tissue to be made allowing the body to handle better the next period of exertion. These substances and muscle proteins are less easily produced in the cold. And both are needed for muscle recovery.For the two-week research, after engaging in strength training, a group of athletes put one leg into a cold water bath and the other leg in a warm water bath. After two weeks, the cold water reduced by around 12 per cent the speed with which muscle proteins were built up. Marken Lichtenbelt thus says: "The cold water bath hampered the training adaptation during a longer training period."

The placebo effect in ice-cold water and muscle recovery

As indicated above, many athletes nevertheless head for an ice-cold bath in order to enable their muscles to recover faster. According to Wiertz, exercise scientist and top athletics specialist at Kenniscentrum Sport & Bewegen, this is because athletes take every opportunity to enhance performance. According to the exercise scientist this is a placebo effect. They think that cryotherapy is good for recovery, and after a few minutes of shivering they automatically have the feeling that they have less muscle pain. That does not say anything however, about the effects that extreme cold can have at the cellular level.

Is cold water good for your muscles?

Whether cold water is good for your muscles has thus not yet been proven. The cold water would increase circulation, as a result of which waste would be removed faster, but Wiertz says that this has not been scientifically proven.  The positive effect is thus mainly the result of the placebo effect and does not do anything for your muscles. But as an athlete, I would certainly take a regular dip into an ice bath. Why? Precisely because the mental aspect is very important to athletes. As a top athlete, you have to deal with extremes, push your boundaries and go for the top. This mental aspect ,the sense of conquest, can make you as a (top) athlete stronger and lead you to win gold in competition.