Professional athletes who jump into ice baths post-workout are onto something. As shown in a 2022 meta-analysis1 published in the journal Sports Medicine, cold water exposure is beneficial for muscle recovery.
Lalitha McSorley, P.T., a physical therapist at Brentwood Physio not involved in the study, explains that the research presented in the analysis showed positive results “for muscle strength, perceived recovery, and reduced muscle soreness,” as the drop in temperature reduces creatine kinases (enzymes released when muscle cells are damaged), reducing the effects of an injury.
“People are using deliberate cold exposure to reduce inflammation post-exercise and reduce inflammation generally, and people are also using cold to enhance performance in the context of strength training and endurance training,” Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, Ph.D. says on the Huberman Lab Podcast.
However, as exercise physiologist Ben Greenfield explains on the mindbodygreen podcast, ideally you’ll wait at least two hours after exercising to take your plunge. This gives your body enough time to build new mitochondria2 after the stress of exercise.
“Paradoxically, if you get in the cold before you work out, the sympathetic nervous system response means it can actually be a pre-workout booster,” he says. “An ideal scenario would be that you do a quick cold soak, hop in a hot tub or hot shower for a few minutes to get blood flow going, and then go hit your workout.”