Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Ice Baths Are Just a Chilly Placebo that Fools Footballers

AFL footballers are required by their coaches to take ice baths or wade in chilly winter seas in the belief it will help their bodies recover from extreme training or the stresses of an event. However, Victoria University PhD student James Broatch has shown that the placebo effect could play a large role in the benefits they experience.

“Many studies have shown that ice baths allow athletes to recover faster, train harder and ultimately perform better,” Broatch said. “They are believed to improve the recovery of strength, power and flexibility, and speed the healing of muscle damage and swelling.

“While our results support the beneficial effects of ice baths, we also found that normal baths can be just as effective if athletes are ‘tricked’ into believing they are beneficial.”

In Broatch’s study, 30 young, active men would cycle intensely before splitting into three groups: one group had an ice bath at 10°C, one group had a warm bath, and the final group were given a placebo treatment – a warm bath to which a common skin cleanser was added as they watched. These participants were told that the cleanser was a newly developed “recovery oil” that was as effective as an ice bath.

The men in the ice bath and the men who had the warm bath with placebo both rated their subjective perceptions of their recovery similarly, and both had a similar recovery of an objective measure of leg strength in the 48 hours post-exercise.

“The warm-bath-with-placebo group, and the warm-bath-only group, both received the same physical treatment, but in the placebo group the recovery of leg strength was superior,” Broatch says. “By deceiving them into thinking they were receiving a beneficial treatment, subjective ratings of psychological well-being rose, and they performed better.”

Broatch believes this finding has important implications. “Smart coaches can harness this belief effect to maximise the benefits of everything they do with athletes. This is particularly important for athletes who respond strongly to the placebo effect,” Broatch said. “A strong belief in ice baths will help them to enhance athletes’ recovery from exercise. For the rest of us, a warm bath will do just fine.”

Broatch’s research was published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.