Immersing oneself in icy cold water has become a popular recovery strategy among athletes and fitness enthusiasts. But whether you should take an ice bath or do a cold plunge depends on your specific goals. Here’s a comparison of the two methods to help you decide which is better for your needs.  

What Are Cold Plunges and Ice Baths?

A cold plunge involves submerging your entire body in cold water for a short period of time, usually 1-3 minutes. You can do a cold plunge in any cold body of water, like a pool, lake, or ocean. Most people will get the water as cold as they can tolerate, around 50-60°F.

An ice bath is when you sit in a bath, bucket, or tub filled with cold water and ice for 10-15 minutes. The water is usually around 50-59°F. You’ll sit in the icy water up to your neck to fully immerse your muscles and core.

Key Differences

There are a few key differences between cold plunges and ice baths:

  • Duration – An ice bath takes longer, usually 10-15 minutes, versus 1-3 minutes for a cold plunge.
  • Submersion – With an ice bath, you sit still, keeping your body submerged up to the neck. A cold plunge involves moving around and fully submerging yourself.
  • Convenience – Ice baths are usually easier to set up at home with a tub, bucket, or small pool. Cold plunges require a larger body of very cold water.
  • Degree of cold – Ice baths can maintain a colder water temperature than most cold plunge locations.

Benefits for Recovery

Both ice baths and cold plunges have benefits after exercise by lowering body temperature and constricting blood vessels. This helps:

  • Remove metabolic waste like lactic acid
  • Reduce swelling and inflammation
  • Lessen muscle soreness and fatigue

However, studies show that using an ice bath for recovery may provide greater benefits. The colder temperature of ice baths compared to cold plunges activates more cold receptors. This leads to a stronger constriction of blood vessels, forcing more blood and metabolic waste products out of muscles.

The longer duration of ice baths also helps flush waste, while the cold temperature decreases tissue metabolism and swelling.

Benefits for Performance

Research on ice baths versus cold plunges for athletic performance is mixed. However, some studies have found pre-performance cold plunges to be more beneficial than ice baths.

The quick cold shock of a plunge activates your sympathetic nervous system. This causes a release of neurotransmitters that can enhance focus and anaerobic power. One study found that trained cyclists had improved sprint performance after 2-3 minutes in 57°F water.

Ice baths’ extreme cold, coupled with their long duration, can blunt sprint performance by negatively affecting muscle contraction speed and nerve conduction velocity.

Considerations for Use

A few tips if you choose to use an ice bath or cold plunge:

  • Only do it after workouts, not before, if your goal is recovery. The exception is using a quick cold plunge to boost performance.
  • For ice baths, ease yourself in up to your neck for 10-15 minutes. Don’t fully submerge your head.
  • Start with water temps above 55°F and work your way down as you acclimate.
  • Dry off and get warm promptly after. Don’t do it if you have any heart conditions.
  • Supplement with other recovery strategies, such as rest, massage, hydration, and nutrition. Don’t rely solely on cold therapy.

The Bottom Line

Ice baths seem to offer greater physiological benefits over cold plunges for post-workout recovery. But cold plunges may provide a performance boost right before exercise by activating your sympathetic nervous system. Choose ice baths for reducing inflammation and soreness and quick cold plunges for pre-workout focus and power. Use them as just one part of a comprehensive recovery plan.