Sometimes a cold shower is just too cold. Then again, sometimes it isn’t. For the truly hardcore, a brief submersion in a tub of ice water is the ultimate cold water experience.
Ice baths work on the same principles as cold showers, only they are often colder, more intense, and in some ways possibly more beneficial.
Ice cold baths are particularly popular among athletes, who claim that an ice bath can reduce inflammation, relieve muscle soreness, and help maintain peak performance during intensive periods of activity.
Notable Proponents of Ice Baths
-Tim Ferris, national Chinese kickboxing champion and author of the Four Hour Body, takes three 10-minute ice-baths a week, claiming they help keep off weight and improve sleep quality.
-Paula Radcliffe, world record holder for women’s marathon, says: “It takes the inflammation down in my legs and although it’s cold at the time it makes you feel so much better, half an hour later.”
-Tony Wilson, a physiotherapist at the University of Southampton, recommends cold baths over cryotherapy: “What they say about the treatment is correct but you might as well just get in a cold bath and save your money”.
Because an ice bath is more intense and fully immersive than a cold shower, the following benefits may be pronounced.
-Mood boost: As described by the Outdoor Swimming Society, “the joy of swimming without a wetsuit at this end of the temperature spectrum is the cold water high … and it is sufficiently powerful that a 1-2 minute swim can leave you feeling good all day.”
-Improves sleep: In the words of Tim Ferris, an ice bath an hour before sleep is “like getting hit with an elephant tranquilizer”.
-Reduces soreness: Paula Radcliffe says “It takes the inflammation down in my legs and although it’s cold at the time it makes you feel so much better half an hour later.”
An ice bath can be potentially dangerous if you are not acclimated to the practice.
A BBC journalist (Tom Fordyce) discovered this when he tried to follow in the footsteps of marathon champion Paula Radcliffe by taking a 10 minute post-run ice bath.
“Fourteen seconds and 73 swear words later I am back dancing laps of the bathroom again. My legs have gone an interesting blotchy red. I can’t be certain, but it looks like the early stages of frostbite.”
Dr. Lisa Silver of Oxfordshire, commenting on cold baths, has stated that frostbite and hypothermia are real risks of prolonged cold exposure.
Frostbite typically occurs at or below freezing temperatures of 32 °F (0 °C). Water obviously cannot be below freezing temperature and still be a liquid, but could feasibly be exactly at freezing point. In this case, it would theoretically be possible to get frostbite if the ice was colder than freezing when you got in and was still absorbing heat from the liquid water at 32 °F. But ice baths are generally taken at 50 °F to 59 °F, well above the danger zone.
Other individuals warn against hypothermia. However, according to The Science of Sport, this is not really a danger unless you spend a prolonged time (30 minutes, for example) in water that is exactly freezing temperature (0 degrees Celsius or 32 degrees Fahrenheit). That’s pretty darn cold. At a more reasonable temperature, like 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit), many individuals can survive for up to 3 hours.
The one outstanding issue that does seem to remain is possibility of heart attack. The Science of Sport claims that the cold water can induce irregular heart beat, leading to heart attack. On the other hand, an article on Mayo Clinic says that irregular heart beat (or “fibrillation”), won’t cause a heart attack, but can lead to heart complications.
That is probably enough to warn against icy cold baths if you have an existing heart condition. However, thousands of athletes safely take ice baths, not to mention the scores of people who swim in icy winter water through groups such as the Ice Hole Swimming Society of Finland, Polar Bear Clubs of North America, and “Walrus” clubs of Russia. You can minimize your risks by bathing in cool, but not freezing temperature waters. The same precautions and guidelines hold as for those taking cold showers.
Readers: If you can find any definitive evidence on whether sudden cold exposure can actually induce heart attack, please share.
Finding a Balance
Don’t think that just because it is called an “ice bath” that the water actually needs to be freezing temperature. A bath in the range of 50 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit will probably give you all the kick you need. Karyn Marshall, a champion weightlifter, reported that after 15 minutes in a 55 degree bath she was “shivering for two hours in the hot California sun with a warm up jacket on”.
Others have suggested that a 10 minute bath in 60 to 75 degree water is just as beneficial.
Image courtesy of owner Aad Villerius, used under the Creative Commons Share-Alike license.