As I hear of our athletes getting in ice baths or watch them put cold packs on their joints, I am amazed about the power of a placebo. A placebo is anything of no real benefit that nevertheless makes people feel better. Yes, I am telling you that the “fairy dust” known as ice won’t cure your problems, whatever ache or injury it is.
A 2009 study out of the Pediatric Exercise Research Center at the University Children’s Hospital in Irvine, California actually found several negative effects of icing on athletic performance. While the study did find that local cold-pack application was associated with a slight decline in inflammation there was an even greater decrease in markers that cause inflammation.
Furthermore, such icing after training led to increased levels of catabolic hormones, which break down protein and muscle, and a decrease in anabolic hormones that promote muscle and tissue growth.
Perhaps the biggest reason that icing has become commonplace in every sport, both as an injury prevention and a cure, is that it provides an analgesic effect, meaning it relieves pain. Unfortunately, a 2003 review out of Auckland University of Technology, found no clear scientific evidence that icing has a beneficial effect on the prevention or reduction of soreness, over than an analgesic effect.
So icing can provide a numbing sensation to where it is applied, whether it is full body immersion or direct local application. However, it will not reduce inflammation to help recovery from exercise, thus icing can actually decrease performance in ensuing training bouts. It will also inhibit the gains from the preceding training session by blocking muscle growth.
But if you’re competing against our athletes, please continue with those ice baths and those magical “20 minutes” of icing, and we’ll just continue to stress the true keys to performance and injury prevention, good nutrition and smart training.