In a recent study done in Australia researchers looked at the effectiveness of using ice baths to reduce muscle inflammation post workouts.
First of all, lets differentiate between post workout muscle inflammation and actual swelling.
Inflammation is not the same thing as “swelling.” Inflammation is the body’s response to certain harmful stimuli, characterized by heat, pain, redness, and swelling. It involves the activation of many different cells and molecular signalers, and increasing the blood supply to the affected area. The goal of this process is to fight off the harmful agents and/or repair tissue damage.
The only question becomes, does using ice baths decrease the muscle adaptation ( \often desired when hard training is used to improve performance). We certainly want to let the muscles adapt in these cases and the possibility that ice baths may inhibit this process poses a problem here.
The Australian study involved nine men who performed one-legged resistance and then either took an ice bath (10 minutes at 50 degrees F) or they did 10 minutes of easy cycling. On another day, they exercised the opposite leg and did the other post-workout routine. The researchers took a bunch of blood samples, plus muscle biopsies before, two hours after, 24 hours after, and 48 hours after the workout.
To assess the results, they tested a long list of inflammatory marker cells. As expected, exercise increased the cellular signs of inflammation—but there was no difference between a post-workout ice bath and 10 easy minutes on a bike.
But, the author notes that while you might assume this means that the study is suggesting that ice baths don’t do anything that’s not necessarily the conclusion. In fact, the same researchers have previously shown that ice baths do trigger changes in parameters like blood flow in the affected muscles while other researchers have shown that cold water can reduce swelling that results from edema, when excess fluid accumulates (as opposed to swelling associated with inflammation).
In addition, these findings don’t change the fact that (a) many previous studies have found that ice baths do reduce perceptions of soreness and speed up the recovery of muscle function; and (b) some studies have, conversely, found that long-term use of ice baths interferes with training adaptations.
Instead, the results suggest that neither the positive nor the negative effects of ice baths are the result of reducing inflammation, or cellular stress in general, in the affected muscle. So the bottom line is they’re not sure.
So I personally conclude that while ice baths after work outs may help they are not necessary if you can cool down using a lighter form of workout such as riding a stationary bike or even a slow walk for 10 minutes. But, if you have found benefit from ice baths, then continue to use them and know that you are not doing any harm.
The only caveat is that maybe decrease ice bath use during heavy training when you are trying to fatigue muscles in order to get ADAPTATION.