New studies are questioning the effectiveness of ice and rest as the best ways to prevent and recover from injuries

What is it?

The dreaded ice bath. If you're a professional athlete who plays a contact sport, chances are you've been plunged into freezing bath water after just about every game or heavy training session you've done. The idea is to cut recovery time with what can only be described as shock therapy.

The theory

Cold has long been assumed to be an athlete's friend. It's supposed to decrease swelling and inflammation, reduce fatigue and provide general pain relief. Ice baths, in particular, are believed to help recovery by shifting lactic acid out of the muscle bed. However, accepted theory on the effectiveness of cold as a treatment appears to be shifting. Dr Gabe Mirkin, the man who pioneered the RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation) injury treatment doctrine that has been standard practice since the late 1970s recanted his work nine months ago. Mirkin published an article in June 2014 suggesting ice and total rest in fact delay the healing process.

The science There has been a bunch of studies into the effectiveness of cold water immersion (CWI) and few seem to agree on its effectiveness. Some suggest there are positive results in terms of athletes reporting less soreness and fatigue. However, tests that measure athletic performance have been unable to detect any effect. A 2009 review of existing literature concluded there was little evidence to suggest CWI helped flush muscle lactics or altered physiological markers of fatigue, but that it did have an effect on helping the nervous system recover after heavy workouts.

Exactly how the part of the affected nervous system - the bit that controls cardiac parasympathetic activity (for the real geeks out there) - affects athletic performance is not known. A bunch of cyclists who showed improved cardiac parasympathetic activity following ice baths failed to improve their 1km times, and a group of swimmers also tested returned slower 100m times.


The manufacturers

"Winning is cool" is the rather catchy slogan of hi-tech American ice bath equipment company Coldtub. "Like any type of therapy, detail is key," the company's website says. "Precise temperature control is essential." The company manufacture equipment for professional sport teams, universities, serious athletes and the US military. As well as a vast range of ice tubs, they make underwater bikes, elipitcal trainers and treadmills.

The experts

If you do it right, CWI can be effective, says John Cronin, the director of the Sports Performance Research Institute New Zealand at AUT University.

"There is pretty good evidence out there suggesting changes in cardiac responses, peripheral resistance, blood flow and that if you toy with the temperature and hydrostatic pressure, it's good," says Cronin.

Hydrostatic pressure is the pressure exerted by water due to the force of gravity. The pressure increases in proportion to the depth due to the increasing weight of the water.

Cronin believes the technique can aid recovery but the question is, how much? Does it do more than, say, going for a light jog? "There is a lot of uptake in cold water immersion but, again, over and above other types of strategies?" asks Cronin.

Warriors head of athletic performance Balin Cupples admits there is "no exact science" in CWI.

"Ice baths reduce the soreness and that perception of fatigue," he says. The club use them regularly and have recently upgraded their equipment.

The athletes

Jerome Ropati. Photo / Greg Bowker
Jerome Ropati. Photo / Greg Bowker
Simon Mannering. Photo / Richard Robinson
Simon Mannering. Photo / Richard Robinson

Warriors and Kiwis captain Simon Mannering believes ice baths are an effective recovery tool and therefore a necessary evil.


"I'd be filthy after my career if it emerged that ice baths were a waste of time," says Mannering.

"I hate getting in them after a game, especially on a cold night. But I think it's good for me. If it comes out they are shite, I will be filthy."

Mannering's former team-mate for club and country, Jerome Ropati, has no doubt ice baths are effective. "You could be sore for days after a game but an ice bath could cut that down to a day," says Ropati. "I'd certainly stand by it. I've had days where I haven't had an ice bath and I've been sore for a while. I'm feeling good in the head and good in the lungs but the legs just can't go."