What awaits you in the locker room may be one of the downsides to finishing a long run. Professional and amateur runners alike will be familiar with the cringe-inducing post-run ice bath, but a group of researchers at the University of New Hampshire have found that it may not be as helpful as previously thought.

A study, published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, had 20 active college men running downhill for 40 minutes at a grade of -10%.

Afterwards, researchers had half of them stand in a recycling bin filled with ice water up to their thighs for 20 minutes. The other lucky half served as a control group and did not undergo the ice baths.

The water was cooled to 5 degrees Celsius (40 degrees Fahrenheit), and lead researcher Naomi Crystal admits that it was “really cold. I had some guys close to tears.”

Using ice baths after exercise is a technique that athletes use to reduce inflammation and speed recovery, note the researchers, but it is also time consuming and quite painful.

For the study, there were measurements taken at 1, 6, 24, 48 and 72 hours post-run:

  • Perception of soreness while walking down stairs
  • Quadriceps strength on a resistance machine
  • Thigh circumference.
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A post-workout ice bath made no difference in soreness or strength for men who ran downhill for 40 minutes

In addition, the researchers looked at the concentration of plasma chemokine ligand 2 (CCL2), which is an indicator of inflammation, in blood samples.

Results show that there was no difference in strength or observed soreness between both groups, and thigh circumference did not change for any of the subjects post-workout.

Although there was a slight trend toward lower concentrations of CCL2 in the ice bath group, the researchers say it was not statistically significant.

Naomi Crystal says of the ice baths:

It doesn’t help you feel better and it doesn’t help you perform better. Ice baths are very popular as a treatment, but the research is really mixed as to whether they’re beneficial. They’re miserable. If it doesn’t work, you don’t want to waste your time.”

The researchers note that ice bath research has produced such a wide range of conclusions because there is not a “standard protocol” for the technique.

Though the finding from the study that using an ice bath post-workout is not an effective way to mitigate soreness, Crystal is still “not convinced” that they are a complete waste of time. She says:

“Use them sparingly. Use them in tournament situations, use them with an athlete who has done something extraordinary. But for day-to-day athletes, I wouldn’t recommend them. They’re painful, and they’re time consuming.”