Many elite athletes, from marathoners to gridiron stars to starting pitchers, practically swear by icing up as a way to promote healing. But this nearly universal post-race/game/workout ritual now looks like nothing more than proof that the placebo effect is alive and well. In a 2007 study in the Journal of Sports Sciences, men who completed a punishing 90-minute shuttle run and then eased themselves into a 50-degree bathtub for ten minutes told researchers afterward that they were sure they were less sore than they would have been without the bath. Yet their levels of creatine kinase, a hallmark of muscle damage, remained the same as in runners who hadn’t soaked. Also in 2007, in one of the few randomized controlled tests examining the popular practice, 40 volunteers did seated leg extensions until near exhaustion. Afterward, half sat in lukewarm water while the other half sat in an ice bath. Next day, those who’d ice-bathed were just as sore as the control group. In fact, the ice bathers reported more pain than the others during a test in which they were asked to rise out of a chair using their tired leg for support. The authors concluded that the “protocol of ice-water immersion was ineffectual.”
Get over it: If you like freezing your butt off, soak away, but the benefits are strictly psychological. Any physiological effects won’t last longer than the ice itself.