RESEARCH GOES COLD ON THE USE OF ICE
Australian National Champion Powerlifter
Poor old Paula Radcliffe. She helped make ice baths popular among athletes seeking better recovery, but in her autobiography, the British world record holder for the marathon called them “absolute agony”. Today, researchers are questioning whether they do anything at all.
In theory, the principle of ice baths, cold water immersion and packing various body bits in ice after training or competition was pretty cool. It was argued that using ice on a regular basis could speed up recovery by reducing muscle damage and the delayed onset of muscle pain and soreness (DOMS) that occurs 24 to 72 hours after exercise.
- Ice was thought to:
- constrict blood vessels and flush waste products like lactic acid out of the affected tissues
- decrease metabolic activity and slow down physiological processes
- reduce swelling and tissue breakdown
Then, with re-warming, the increased blood flow speeds circulation, and in turn, improves the healing process.
Now researchers are coming to the conclusion that unless you’re racing in consecutive events or are injured, then you’re better off skipping post-exercise ice and letting your muscles build back up on their own. Some coaches even argue that all ice does is pool lactic acid (a necessary waste product produced by the body during intense exercise) and make it more likely to be sore the next day.
The new principle can be summarized thus: harden up princess and stop looking for the easy way out.
Now the emphasis is on another type of cooling down after exercise – simple aerobic exercises, very light resistance exercises and dynamic stretches. These can produce a “pumping effect” to clear lactic acid from the muscles.
Ultimately, your body needs to go through a bit of the natural inflammation process rather than trying to knock it out entirely with ice and NSAIDs such as ibuprofen.
Way back in 2002, a study in the American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism showed that ibuprofen inhibited protein synthesis in muscles after high-intensity exercise. A few years later, researchers fed ibuprofen to some powerlifting rats. The study, published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, found that the ibuprofen prevented strength gains.
The study on the rats (now furious that they’d lost 5g off their 1RM bench press) helped show that inflammation is one of the body’s signalling pathways. “Ouch, we’re damaged,” it signals to the rest of the body. “Come help us repair and adapt, build us stronger so we can hack it better next time.”
In recent years, some of the key studies turning up the heat on post-exercise ice treatments include:
- 2006 – a Japanese study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology gave men cycling workouts. After each one, the subjects would put only one leg in an ice bath – the other was kept at room temperature. Researchers found that the non-iced leg gained more strength, circulation and endurance. The scientists wrote, “[ice baths] retard rather than support the desired improvement of muscular performance.”
- 2007 – a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that ice-water (5°C / 41°F) immersion after heavy weight training did not reduce swelling or tenderness in the muscles. In fact, the athletes reported more next-day leg pain when going from a sitting to a standing position than those who had soaked in a tepid bath after training.
- 2012 – a University of Portsmouth study published in the European Journal of Sport Science compared post-exercise water immersion therapy at 12°C /54°F and 35°C/ 95°F, as well as a group who simply did 12 minutes walking at 5km/h. Muscle soreness, maximal voluntary contraction of quads and hamstrings, hop distance, creatine kinase activity (an indicator of muscle breakdown) and my oglobin concentration (which helps oxygen-carrying capacity of the muscle) were measured at 1; 24; 48 and 72 hours after exercise. The results showed no significant differences between the groups for any of these measurements.
But let’s get something straight – there’s a difference between muscle recovery from exercise and recovery from major trauma. So ice post-exercise can still be useful to, say, the rugby player who get hammered and has bruises and sprains after a match, because that internal bleeding and excessive swelling can lead to secondary damage and can delay healing. Leave the ice or cold water on for only about 20 minutes at a time, or just until the affected area gets numb.
SO WHERE DOES COMPRESSION GEAR FIT IN?
Well, for a start, it’s a lot more convenient and easy to use than ice – plus independent studies prove it works for recovery.
An AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) study completed in 2010 measured swelling in the muscle and blood lactate levels both before and after a one-hour recovery period in athletes wearing 2XU Compression Tights after cycling training. Both were lower among the athletes wearing tights compared to a control group, while perceived muscle soreness was also lower. No money, sponsorships or even Freddo frogs were on offer to the athletes wearing the tights – like the rest of us who train hard, their only interest was that they just didn’t want to be sore all the time.
The other great thing about compression is that it is a passive element of recovery that doesn’t restrain active recovery, so you can get a 2-for1 recovery deal. In other words, I can put long tights on after my last set of lifting or put a compression top on straight after kayaking and go straight into light exercises and dynamic stretching in that all-important 20 minutes post-training – plus I can eat or drink my recovery food/drink fine because my teeth aren’t chattering.
I’ve used compression garments to train for three different sports – ultra marathon trail running, power lifting and adventure racing. Do they work? The proof is in the fact that I train more frequently and, as far as muscular soreness and injury goes, I recover better – even though I am now in my 40s and my body’s ability to recover should be going backwards. There are other interesting indicators, too. After racing for up to 10 hours in an adventure race before putting on compression tights, I’ve noticed an interesting sensation 2-3 hours or so later when the tights actually begin to feel tighter – a little like the gentle pressure of massage as the muscle tissue attempts to swell and pool with lactate. I am also prone to burning hot feet when I go to bed after an evening training session. This never happens any more, which seems to clearly indicate better blood flow post-exercise after using the compression gear.