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The Truth About Post-Match Baths
Ice, Hot, and Contrast Baths
Hydrotherapy can be used as a recovery aid after a hard training session or game, and the main benefit for football players is a reduction in muscle soreness the next day, allowing for consistency in training and less chance of picking up injuries. Some favour ice baths, others hot baths, but contrast baths using both cold and hot water can also be used. There’s currently very little scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of baths in real terms, but many players swear by them, so it may be something that needs to be experimented with to discover the benefits for yourself.
Cold baths, also known as ice-water immersion baths or cryotherapy, use water temperatures of around 15 degrees Celsius or lower, but not below 10 degrees. The idea is to submerge the affected muscles in the water for anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes after training – something most people find mentally as well as physically challenging the first time around.
Heavy training causes tiny tears in the working muscles, leading to inflammation and DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) the following day and up to 72 hours later. The theory behind submerging the muscles in ice water is that the cold constricts (narrows) the blood vessels, helping to reduce swelling and also lower pain as the nerve-endings are numbed. After getting out of the bath, the increased blood flow to the muscles as the body warms up brings nutrients to boost healing and aids the process of flushing out waste products such as lactic acid that cause soreness.
The water temperature for a hot bath needs to be around 36 degrees Celsius up to as hot as can be tolerated.
The theory behind hot baths is that the heat dilates (expands) the blood vessels, thereby increasing blood flow to the muscles, helping to flush out the lactic acid and waste product build-up that leads to soreness the day after. Heat also increases the flexibility of the muscles, helping to ease muscle stiffness when combined with a stretching programme.
This requires two separate baths, one at 15 degrees Celsius and the other at 36 degrees. The idea is to complete three to six cycles of being in cold for one to two minutes and then hot for one to two minutes, moving directly from one to the other and finishing with cold.
In theory, contrast baths bring the combined benefits of both ice baths and hot baths. The cold constricts the blood vessels to reduce swelling and the heat dilates the blood vessels to increase blood flow and flush out waste products. An added bonus of a contrast bath is that the exposure to cold and heat is short-lived, so it’s less of a mental and physical challenge to endure.
Ice baths – The tiny tears in muscle fibres caused by heavy training lead to hypertrophy, the body’s natural response to a repetitive increase in workload. As the damaged fibres are repaired, the muscle grows bigger and stronger, so for this reason, ice baths should be limited to during the season and avoided in pre-season. Pre-season training sessions are designed to promote muscle strength and growth, so reducing the inflammation that naturally occurs after a session will in fact hinder this process. Muscle soreness is to be expected after pre-season training sessions such as weights in the gym or plyometrics and it’s easier to tolerate as it’s simply a means-to-an-end that coaches will factor into the training schedule.
During the season, muscle soreness will not only limit performance, but also increase the potential to pick up injuries, so an ice bath after a heavy session can reduce the inflammation and the soreness it creates, helping you to stay on track in training and fresh for games.
Hot baths – This type of bath can be utilised at any point in the season, especially as part of a flexibility training programme. Studies have proven that muscles are more pliable after 10 to 15 minutes in a hot bath, so following up with a stretching routine can relieve tight muscles that are more prone to injury.
Due to the circulation-boosting effects of a hot bath, it’s not recommended to take one just before going to bed. Allow time for your body to relax and return to normal body temperature to ensure a good night’s sleep.
Contrast baths – The ice-water aspect of contrast baths limits their usefulness pre-season, but they can be helpful in terms of injury recovery. The dramatic change of temperature from cold to hot and back again can stimulate an injured muscle without adding the stress of movement. This way an injury can be rested but benefit from the tissue workout provided by the constricting and dilating blood vessels.
There’s limited scientific evidence to prove the physical benefits of hydrotherapy for footballers, but there’s plenty of subjective evidence to support the psychological benefits. Those who swear by ice-baths report a lower rate of perceived exertion (RPE) in the following day’s training session. There may be no measurable physical improvement, but feeling stronger or faster mentally has a positive impact on performance.
It’s well-known that a soak in a hot tub can be a relaxing experience, so it’s not surprising that many players find a hot bath therapeutic when their muscles are tired or sore. As with ice treatments, the psychological benefits of heat are closely linked to reports of feeling less physical pain in affected muscles.
Pros and Cons of Baths in Summary
Ice baths can help to reduce inflammation and associated muscle soreness. This is beneficial during the season to help keep training and match performance consistent, but ice should be avoided in pre-season training when the aim is to promote muscle growth.
Hot baths can help to relieve tight muscles, thereby reducing pain and promoting greater flexibility when combined with stretches. To gain maximum benefits, the water temperature needs to be kept above 36 degrees Celsius for at least 10 minutes, so a fresh supply of hot topping-up water must be available on-site.
Contrast baths can promote recovery in injured muscles. However, the logistics of keeping two baths (or wheelie bins) at the ideal temperature and the need to move straight from one to the other make contrast baths hard to manage in practice.