Ice Baths: Separating Myth from Reality

The ice bath plunge has surged to new heights, becoming a go-to recovery trend among athletes everywhere, from amateur sports teams to elite mountain athletes.

But in the heart of the fitness world, the ice baths debate rages on. Is it just a trend or a tool for genuine recovery? Do they fulfill the chilly promises they make or do they just leave you shivering and blue for no reason? 

On one side, there are those who spin wild tales of instant recovery and superhuman strength. On the flip side, some are armed with scientific facts, challenging the veracity of these myths. 

In this article, we’ll cover three of the most widely debated topics surrounding ice baths and help you know once and for all if they’re indeed fact, or simply fiction.

Is There Any Real Science Behind Ice Baths?

Ice baths have scientific backing for reducing muscle soreness post-exercise. They constrict blood vessels, flush waste products, and reduce swelling and tissue breakdown. Subsequent rewarming increases blood flow, aiding recovery. More research on long-term effects and immersion time is needed.

Ice baths have become a popular biohack to improve performance and other health markers, but whether they are truly beneficial is a heated discussion coursing through the fitness industry. 

On one hand, these so-called polar plunges seem to offer immediate pain relief; key among them the constriction of blood vessels. 

While this entire article is backed by the latest findings in cold immersion research, if you want an exhaustive look into the science behind ice baths you’ll want to jump over to our aptly named article ‘The Science Behind Ice Baths - Unveiling the Cold Truth’.

What Happens When You Dip Your Body in Ice Water?

Dipping your body in ice water induces vasoconstriction, reducing blood flow to muscles. This process helps flush out metabolic waste, alleviate inflammation, and decrease muscle soreness. However, prolonged exposure can lead to risks, necessitating limited time and a strict range of temperatures.

Narrowing of blood vessels is a physiological adaptation to extreme cold, it has the following effects on the body:

Once you leave the freezing environment and your body starts to warm up again, blood flow increases dramatically, further assisting with the recovery process.

Those are the facts. 

But thanks to TikTok and Instagram, the ‘facts’ have taken on a life of its own. One that’s far removed from evidence-based research.

What’s Behind the Ice Bath Trend?

The ice bath trend stems from its perceived recovery benefits. Athletes use it to reduce muscle soreness, inflammation, and fatigue. The general public has latched and promoted a long list of benefits through social media. However, many of these benefits have no scientific efficacy or concensus.

Ice baths have become a new trend for fitness enthusiasts and celebrities alike, with many people sharing their experiences on social media. Said to improve your mood, give you more energy, help you lose weight, etc - the public conversation is far removed from the scientific one. 

Debunking Common Myths About Ice Baths

If you’ve been caught in the swirl of hearsay surrounding ice baths, we're here to add clarity.

Join us as we separate the wheat from the chaff in the realm of ice bath myths.

Myth 1: Ice Baths Detoxify the Body

This is a myth. While ice baths are known for their therapeutic benefits, such as reducing delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and aiding in muscle and tissue repair, there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that they detoxify the body.

Yes, ice baths have their place in the repertoire of traditional treatments from Japan to Sweden, and athletes have adopted this centuries old practice as part of their post-recovery regimen.

But their function isn't about flushing toxins. 

Instead, they should still be continued for the benefits everyone knows. Muting muscle soreness and contributing to muscle repair is more than enough reason to add ice baths to your recovery.

Remember though, they're not a detox magic bullet.

Myth 2: Longer Submersion Yields More Benefits

This is also a myth. But it’s buried in a few layers of complexity. 

And this is where the big debate is brewing around the pros and cons of ice baths for workout recovery within the scientific community. That’s because several studies suggest cold immersion may inhibit muscle growth and strength gains in the long run.

Given the conflicting perspectives in the scientific communities, it's evident that more research is required to get a comprehensive understanding of ice baths’ long-term effects and pinpoint the ideal duration for immersion.

But perhaps the greatest risk is not taking the correct precautions to ice baths. Without the right approach, jumping into a bath of ice opens you up to hypothermia, frostbite, and other cold-related injuries.

So, contrary to the old "more is better" adage, in the subzero world, quick and precise wins. At least until more research is conducted to merit more time in the tub.

While we wait for the opposing research communities to declare a victor, there are several guidelines you can follow to amp up the benefits and reduce the risks of cold immersion.

Chief among them is the duration of your soak.

How Long Should You Submerge Your Body in Ice Water?

Submersion time in ice water should typically range from 2 to 5 minutes. This duration helps reduce muscle soreness and inflammation without risking frostbite, muscle loss, and strength gains. Individual differences and medical advice should always be considered for determining the right duration.

Some resources recommend 10-15 minutes, but since this is such an individualized variable, 2-5 minutes is the safest place to start if you’re new to ice baths and cold immersion.

MTNTOUGHers know, it's not always about the longest haul but the most effective work. In this case, aim for the sweet spot: a refreshing 50°F-60°F (10°C-15°C). 

Going colder or freezing in the tub for longer, and you're not embracing the bite - you're risking frostbite.

Myth 3: Ice Baths Are Beneficial After Every Workout

This statement is a myth as well. While ice baths can be beneficial for athletes and amateur fitness enthusiasts, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that they are necessary after every workout. 

The clearest benefits come in the form of treating injuries and speeding up recovery time. Simply put, not all endurance tests are created equal. Sure, every professional sports team has ice baths in the locker room, but they aren’t there for casual support.

Trainers will have athletes jump on the ice if they’re nursing an injury or if they left it all on the field that day.

Bringing it back to the mountain athlete, if you're marking miles in the backcountry, ice baths might accelerate your recovery process. But for those of you striving for strength and muscle growth on a typical Tuesday, ice baths might not be the answer. 

Unlock the Benefits of Ice Baths with MTNTOUGH

While debunking the myths surrounding ice baths is worth every ounce of effort, it’s equally important to recognize and utilize their proven benefits. They have a clear and specific purpose in muscle recovery. But there is still far more to research on the topic.

Just remember to separate the myth from reality before doing so, this is the key to harnessing the true power of ice baths, which includes:

  • Reduce Soreness, Aid Muscle Repair: Ice baths are celebrated for reducing muscle soreness and aiding muscle repair, they aren’t some magical potion for detoxifying your body.
  • Less Is More: The notion that longer submersion yields more benefits is layered doesn’t apply to cold immersion; take a balanced approach and stick to recommended durations. 
  • Specific Occasions: Utility of ice baths isn’t a casual or everyday occasion, but rather, they shine in aiding recovery when it’s truly needed and treating injuries.

But where does MTNTOUGH stand amidst this cold controversy? At MTNTOUGH, and within the MTNTOUGH+ community, there’s certainly a time and place to grab some ice and soak your muscles in the cold water. 

MTNTOUGH+ is not just a fitness training platform, but also a community of resilient backcountry hunters, tactical athletes, mountain sports enthusiasts and many more. We see ice baths as one of many tools that aid in our recovery from testing the limits of endurance and adaptability. 

Whether that’s pushing through The Devil’s 55 pack-based workout at home or hiking out in the field. If we’ve given it our all in either circumstance, then an ice bath and all its benefits should certainly be considered.

We encourage MTNTOUGH’ers and anyone who tests their body and mind to explore ice baths as part of their training recovery when the time is right.

Looking for a reason to try an ice bath? Just give MTNTOUGH a go. Now’s the perfect time to test your limits and grow thanks to the 14-day free trial of MTNTOUGH+.

With this limited time offer you’ll get unfettered access to every MTNTOUGH+ program and workout - including the most ice bath worthy challenges we offer. So go ahead and take the risk-free plunge with MTNTOUGH

See firsthand how we can help you reach peak physical and mental toughness, and give you a solid excuse to try ice baths while you’re at it.