On a hot summer day, getting into the sauna may not sound like a great idea. Luckily for you, ice, too, is good at speeding recovery after a gruelling workout.
Cryotherapy and ice baths are widely used in sports to assist in recovery after training sessions or hard matches during tournaments when rest and recovery time are at a premium. It’s a technique that I’m sure was used by cricketers in the recent IPL series.
Plunging into a body of water filled with ice at a temperature between 5 and 13 degrees Celsius might sound a bit extreme to you, but trust me, there are few treatment methods that have the same impact on stunting damage and accelerating recovery that an ice bath does.
How does an ice bath work?
On climbing into an ice bath, the sensations you experience go through three to four stages. At first, there will be a feeling of extreme cold followed by a stinging as you immerse yourself fully. Then, you will feel a burning or aching, which will finally be followed by numbness. Each stage is related to the effect on the nerve endings that temporarily cease function because of the decreased blood flow.
The time required for this sequence is five to 15 minutes. After about 10-12 minutes of an ice bath, a reflex deep tissue vasodilatation called the Hunting Response occurs in extremely cold temperatures (10 degrees Celsius). For best results, when you have an injury, make sure you don’t exceed 10 minutes, to prevent vasodilatation. The effect of vasodilation is similar to that of heating the tissue, and leads to increased blood flow, swelling and pain!
The physiological benefits of icing include a decrease in circulation, haemorrhage, formation of exudates, muscle spasm and spasticity, pain and vasodilatation.
The effects that are most relevant to you in recovery are the reflex stimulation of muscles and reduction of muscle fatigue. This is very important especially if you are in the midst of heavy competition or upping your training intensity.
Ice baths also cause vasoconstriction, which drains blood out of the cooled extremities. On leaving the bath, new blood that is rich in oxygen flows back into the extremities and reduces the inflammation caused by microscopic muscle tears caused due to heavy training. There is also proven increase in blood flow to deep muscle tissue leading to drainage of waste products like lactic acid, which causes muscle fatigue, heavy legs and general tiredness, as well as improvement of the damaged areas.
How to use the ice bath?
You should get into the ice bath for 5-10 minutes within 60 minutes of exercise. If that seems too long, you can get in and out for sets of 2-3 minutes at a time. You should sit in the ice bath and ensure good ice coverage for all your muscles. Move your legs around to prevent the water around you from warming due to body heat. Try adding Epsom salts to further recovery.
Why you shouldn’t do it
Cryotherapy is not recommended for those who have cold allergies (hives, joint pain and nausea), Raynaud’s phenomenon (arterial spasm), and some rheumatoid conditions. Other contraindications include reduced skin sensitivity to temperature; high or low blood pressure; open wounds or sores and circulatory problems.
Heath is a physiotherapist with the Mittal Champions Trust.