DURHAM — Ice baths have long been used to help collegiate and professional athletes recover after grueling training and performance.
But research from the University of New Hampshire recently published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology shows that the treatment may not be effective at all.
Lead researcher Naomi Crystal said subjects who engaged in post-exercise cryotherapy showed no mitigation of post-exercise strength loss or decreased soreness compared to a control group.
The study was conducted between 2010 and 2011 with 20 active, college-age men. Each subject ran for 40 minutes on a treadmill with a 10 percent decline. Half were then subjected to a 20-minute ice bath at a temperature of 5-degrees Celsius. The other half was not.
Although her research shows there is no benefit, there is plenty of other research that suggests otherwise, Crystal said.
"Ice baths are very popular as a treatment, but the research is really mixed as to whether they're beneficial," she said.
John Dana, the head athletic trainer at UNH, said they started using ice baths consistently between five and seven years ago, but ice baths have been around for quite a long time as a recovery tool.
Dana works with the UNH football team and said about 30 percent of the team does an ice bath right after each practice.
"The logic is that it makes their legs feel better, maybe hurt a little less, maybe not so stiff and sore, maybe recover a little faster for the next time we play," Dana said.
Some players enjoy the ice baths, others hate it, and everything in between, Dana said.
"I think probably 75 percent think it is either a really good idea or worth doing and 25 percent could take it or leave it," Dana said.
He said he was not surprised at all by Crystal's research, and is not sure if there is anything that proves if ice baths works one way or the other.
"I look at it this way. Basically all you're doing is icing your legs. I don't think there are many negatives associated with that, but like they said, the UNH research says there is no proof that it helps. You could find research that just as easily says that it does help," Dana said.
Dana said he has never been a "mandatory ice bath believer" and does not think the research will change his everyday thinking.
"Because it is kind of ingrained now. After a hard workout, you do an ice bath. A lot of track kids, especially long-distance kids, do an ice bath every day as recovery from beating on their legs. I don't think this will change. I don't know that we have a better alternative. Certainly it would open the conversation about whether this is worth doing. Ice baths require a certain amount of effort," Dana said.
Creating conversation about the use of ice baths is what Crystal is hoping for. She said she hopes athletes look at all the research and not just her study before making a decision on the treatment.
The study was Crystal's master's degree thesis and was co-authored by UNH associate professor of kinesiology Dain LaRoche, assistant professor of kinesiology Summer Cook, and associate professor of molecular, cellular and biomedical sciences Dave Townson.