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Why do athletes love ice baths and can they work for you?

Experts weigh in on whether ice baths can improve performance for athletes and regular fitness buffs.
Ice cubes
People with heart defects should not get ice baths. The same is true for people with kidney problems. Always check with your doctor first.Christoph Hetzmannseder / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

When tennis champ Andy Murray won a particularly long and grueling match at the U.S. Open in New York last summer, all he longed for afterwards was an “emergency” ice bath.

Naomi Osaka is a fan of the cold treatment, too. “I just want to go into an ice bath,” she said after a three-set battle at the tournament.

Over and over, tennis players and other athletes have praised the practice as a way to recover quicker and perform better after an intense competition. Outside of sports, even Lady Gaga is a believer, posting a photo of herself last year soaking in ice water after rehearsals for the MTV Video Music Awards.

She previously revealed ice baths are part of her post-show routine.

So what’s the big deal and can ice baths improve performance for athletes or regular fitness buffs?

TODAY asked Dr. John Tabacco, a sports medicine physician in Arlington, Virginia, and the team physician for the NFL Washington Football Team; and Rebecca Stearns, an expert in exercise and heat, and chief operating officer of the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut.

What is an ice bath?

The process involves a tub or other large container that's filled with ice and water. Stearns has seen football players use trash cans for this purpose. Athletes will then submerge themselves in this cool cocktail up to waist level or higher for about 10-15 minutes or so.

“Athletes like it everywhere, in every training room and in every place I've been, and that spans every sport,” Tabacco said.

The sensation can be agony at first, as anyone who has had ice water poured on them during the Ice Bucket Challenge can attest. People may gasp in shock at first, but the body can grow numb to the pain after about 30 seconds.

This type of cold water immersion is much more intense than a cold shower because the water coming out of the tap would never get as cold as the ice water. Expect the temperature to hover at around 50 degrees Fahrenheit or so.

Are there any benefits?

There is some science to back the benefits players are reporting, such as reducing pain, swelling and soreness associated with intense exercise, said Stearns, a member of the American College of Sports Medicine.

But Tabacco was much more skeptical, noting he's seen little or no evidence of a benefit.

Supporters list several possible mechanisms at play. An ice bath will cause blood vessels to constrict, which some believe can help flush waste products, such as lactic acid, out of the affected tissue.

There’s also the theory that ice water reduces oxidative stress in the muscles by turning off or tampering down the inflammatory process after a high intensity workout: "It could help as almost an anti-inflammatory effect," Stearns said.

It could also dampen nerve transmission, which could help reduce pain perception since pain signals are transmitted through the nerves, she added.

“If you're numb, you're not feeling the pain," Tabacco noted. "That doesn't necessarily translate to being good on the cellular level for your body and your muscles.”

There may also be a psychological aspect. Athletes simply feel better afterward so they believe they're getting a benefit.

Can ice baths come with risks?

Yes. The shock to the system of a person who enters ice water after a tough workout could make the athlete pass out or cause arrhythmia, an abnormal heart beat, Tabacco said.

People with heart defects should not get ice baths. The same is true for people with kidney problems. Always check with your doctor first.

“And you should never get into a cold water immersion if you're feeling lightheaded or you're feeling a loss of consciousness or if you have altered mental status, because certainly there's always the risk of getting in a cold water tub on your own and not being able to get out,” Tabacco warned.

There’s also the risk of hypothermia. People with conditions brought on by cold temperatures, like Raynaud's disease, should skip ice baths.

Should you try it?

The experts had differing opinions.

“I would not prescribe a cold water immersion for any athlete,” professional or amateur, Tabacco said.

Instead, he recommended active recovery — or doing very light exercise, like gentle yoga or walking — after a strenuous workout.

But Stearns believed ice baths could work for any level of athlete if they stay within realm of safety.

"There are some great benefits that have been shown in the research for the acute recovery period," she noted.