Everyone knows that cold water immersion (CWI), more casually known as ice baths has a number of benefits. These benefits include:
- Decreased perception of muscular soreness (DOMS)
- Reduced tissue inflammation
- Reduced muscle damage
- Reduced muscle spasms
Generally, research into the area has been inconclusive with studies findings not always being able to be replicated in other research settings.
The biggest benefit that seems to be agreed upon is that the use of CWI reduces perceived muscle soreness. This can be a huge benefit to a footballer because when the games come thick and fast, feeling sore all the time is less than ideal.
So, is it as simple as CWI is the greatest recovery modality of all time and every player should utilise them after every training session, game, gym session and when they walk the dog longer than 6 minutes?
A study (Roberts et al, 2015) compared the effects of using CWI against using active recovery (AR) and observed the changes in muscle mass and strength after 12 weeks of training.
Both the CWI and AR groups took part in the same 12-week training program and were provided with the same nutritional supplements. The training program was progressive and consisted of bilateral and unilateral lower body strength exercises.
This is where the groups split…
The CWI group were in an ice bath at 10 Degrees for 10 minutes, no longer than 5 minutes after the end of the training session.
The AR group cycled for 10 minutes at a self-selected low intensity on a watt-bike. The mean power output from the first cycle was recorded and replicated on subsequent training days meaning that the AR were as consistent as possible.
Both the CWI group and AR group saw increases in muscle mass after the 12-week training program. However, the AR group saw significantly larger increases than the CWI group.
Both groups also experienced significant increases in strength after 12 weeks and yet again, the AR group made significantly greater increases than the CWI group.
So, what does this mean for a footballer?
Applying the results of this study to football is actually very simple if we weigh up the pros and cons of CWI and match this up with the various goals of a footballer throughout the season.
The goal of pre-season is to train to produce positive adaptations. These sought-after adaptations include greater muscular size, strength and power amongst others. The playing of important matches does not occur during pre-season and therefore a player can afford to be sore during this period.
Therefore, CWI should not be utilised during pre-season* as it may reduce the positive benefits of strength training.
*(unless in very specific circumstances)
During the season, every game is important, as is every training session. Generally, the goal of training during intense periods in-season is to maintain the strength and power built during pre-season and not necessarily to increase these abilities.
Therefore, where possible, CWI should be utilised after intense training session and games in order to recover as quickly as possible and be able to train and play at a high-level ASAP.