For access to all of our training, gear, and race coverage, plus exclusive training plans, FinisherPix photos, event discounts, and GPS apps, sign up for Outside+.
Should ice baths and ibuprofen be your first line of defense?
Considering athletic performance continues to increase as a result of better technology and a growing understanding for human physiology and training, it’s surprising that an ice bath and NSAIDs—anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin and ibuprofen—are still prescribed for recovery purposes.
One 2006 study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology looked at college-age men on exercise bikes for four to six weeks. Following each workout, they put one leg in an ice bath and kept the other leg out at room temperature. They found that the non-iced leg gained more strength, circulation and endurance. Another study, at the University of Florida, found that muscle strength decreased in rats after taking NSAIDs. Yet another study, from the University of Arkansas, showed that high doses of ibuprofen appeared to limit the ability to increase muscle mass.
More than a decade of research backs up these contentions, suggesting that for recovery, there are better options than icy water and anti-inflammatories. “The bottom line is that in order to recover, your body needs to go through a process which includes inflammation—and ice and NSAIDs inhibit the normal inflammatory process,” says Dr. Jennifer Solomon, a sports medicine physician in New York City.
Instead of these techniques, Solomon recommends doing active, dynamic stretches after a warm-up and a post-workout massage to accelerate recovery.
Old thoughts: Take NSAIDs to reduce inflammation after hard workouts.
New thoughts: An anti-inflammatory can be useful in cases of injury or the need to perform multiple days in a row (like a cycling tour). However, it also has been shown to inhibit protein synthesis and thereby muscle strength.
Old thoughts: Ice baths on a regular basis can reduce muscle damage and speed recovery after exercise.
New thoughts: Unless you’re racing in consecutive events or are injured, in the larger training scheme, you will build more muscle by forgoing regular ice baths and letting your muscles build back up on their own.
RELATED: Medicine Cabinet Minefields