Ice baths: could benefits be all in the head?

For years, elite athletes have suffered the agonies of ice baths in the belief they help the body recover from hard training and enhance performance. But, could it all be in their heads?

New research by Victoria University PhD candidate James Broatch has shown the placebo effect could play a large role in the benefits of ice baths.

“Many studies have shown that ice baths allow athletes to recover faster, train harder and ultimately perform better,” Mr Broatch said.

“They are believed to improve the recovery of strength, power and flexibility and speed the healing of muscle damage and swelling. While our results support the beneficial effects of ice baths, we also found that normal baths can be just as effective if athletes are ‘tricked’ into believing they are beneficial.”

Mr Broatch's study in the College of Sport and Exercise Science recruited 30 young, active men and had them cycle intensely. They were then divided into three groups: one group had an ice bath of 10 degrees Celsius, one group had a warm bath, and the final group had a “placebo” (a fake treatment).

The placebo group had a warm bath to which a common skin cleanser was added, as they watched. The men, however, were told the cleanser was a newly developed “recovery oil”, and that it was as effective as an ice bath for the recovery of athletic performance.

The results? The men in the ice bath, and the men who had the warm bath with placebo, both rated their subjective perceptions of their recovery similarly, and both had a similar recovery of an objective measure of leg strength in the 48 hours post-exercise.

“The warm-bath-with-placebo group, and the warm-bath-only group, both received the same physical treatment, but in the placebo group, the recovery of leg strength was superior,” Broatch says.

“By deceiving them into thinking they were receiving a beneficial treatment, subjective ratings of psychological well-being rose, and they performed better.”

Mr Broatch believes this finding has important implications.

“Smart coaches can harness this belief effect to maximise the benefits of everything they do with athletes. This is particularly important for athletes who respond strongly to the placebo effect," Mr Broatch said.

"A strong belief in ice baths will help them to enhance athletes’ recovery from exercise. For the rest of us, a warm bath will do just fine.”

Broatch’s research was recently published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

See all news