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STUDY: Your post-exercise ice bath is preventing you from building muscle

For optimal recovery, eat the post-workout protein but skip the cold water immersion

If your recovery go-to’s are a protein-rich snack and an ice bath, new research may have you reconsidering the second one. A study published in The Journal of Physiology argues that athletes using cooling methods to aid recovery may be preventing their bodies from synthesizing protein, an essential ingredient in the recovery process. Amino acids that come from ingested protein are crucial to rebuilding and strengthening muscles after exercise.

Eating protein-rich snacks and plunging body parts into an ice bath are often used (sometimes concurrently) by athletes to improve post-exercise recovery and facilitate muscle conditioning. This study looked at whether cooling impacts how protein is handled by the body and subsequent muscle protein synthesis rates during recovery from exercise.

women doing cold plunge
Women participating in an outdoor cold plunge. Photo: Instagram/anaelisaotelov

The study

Researchers curious about the impact of cold water immersion on the body’s ability to absorb protein found 12 healthy men ages 19 to 23 to participate in a two-week long intensive study. Participants performed resistance-type exercises and then had a blood sample taken, immersed their legs in cold water for 20 minutes followed by further blood and muscle- temperature samples, drank a protein-rich beverage, had samples taken, etc. This protocol was repeated on a daily basis for the entire two-week period.

Results from the study led to the conclusion that post-exercise ice bathing lowers the incorporation of amino acids from digested protein into myofibrillar protein (a major component of muscles) by as much as 26 per cent over a five-hour post-exercise recovery period.

That’s fabulous information for scientists, but what does that mean for us regular runners?

protein sources

The takeaway

This study was one of the first in-depth looks at this particular idea, and researchers acknowledge more investigation needs to be done, including using a larger and more diverse sample size. However, the results they uncovered were consistent across the board, and are worth considering when planning your post-exercise routine.

Researchers concluded that cold-water immersion used in recovery from resistance-type exercise lowers the ability of muscles to take up and direct amino acids from protein towards building new muscle in healthy, recreationally active males.

study on cold water immersion and amino acid uptake
Image: The Journal of Physiology

Runners aiming to improve skeletal muscle conditioning should reconsider using ice baths or cold plunges as a part of their post-exercise recovery strategy. Taking in a protein-rich snack post-run will aid muscle recovery when not combined with cold water immersion.

If cold plunges or showers are something you find beneficial outside of exercise recovery (you’re using them to build mental resilience or gain neurological benefits), consider timing them around workouts and leave ample recovery time.

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