As you can imagine, a Mixed-Martial Art (MMA) fighter’s body is going to feel pretty bad after a big fight or even after a day of hard training. So, having a beneficial recovery regime is essential for them, which is why many have taken up things like ice baths to help relieve many of their injuries.
MMA fighters take ice baths because it restricts blood flow to muscles, helping with the recovery. Also known as cold-water immersion (CWI), ice baths have long been used as a form of recovery, and science has found they decrease swelling, muscle damage, and muscle soreness for those that take them.
Let’s dive into the science of ice baths to find out if they are the right option for you!
What Are the Benefits of Ice Baths for MMA Fighters?
You might be wondering if taking an ice bath is worth it. We know…it is really cold. However, there are quite a few benefits that ice baths provide that you should consider. Let’s take a look at some of them below.
They Soothe Aching Muscles and Reduce Inflammation
When you dip into an ice bath, it acts fairly fast by cooling your skin, muscles, and core temperature. Once that takes effect, it will lead to your blood vessels constricting. The constriction of the blood vessels will force the blood to slow or block blood flow altogether. So, areas of swelling, inflammation, and muscle tissue damage will decrease significantly.
Research has also shown that ice baths improve neuromuscular performance, such as running sprints or jumping and decreasing creatine kinase (CK) levels, which act as a stress marker for muscle damage. Decreasing CK levels is especially important for fighters because they tend to be high after flighting. The decrease can also help speed recovery.
You Won’t Be As Tired
It is not uncommon for MMA fighters to be tired and sore after a fight. You use up a lot of energy! However, there are ways to help with the fatigue as well.
The EEG test takes into account the brain waves of each individual before and after exercise. When the brain is being active, it generates beta waves. However, when the body is relaxed and not actively engaged, the brain will generate much slower alpha waves.
During the study, the participants showed higher alpha wave levels before exercise, which meant they were relaxed. After exercise, the participants’ brains showed higher levels of beta waves, which indicated fatigue from actively using the brain.
So, how does this relate to CWI? After being active, athletes who take an ice bath were found to have generated alpha waves once more. Meaning the body returned to a regulated state.
What Are the Risks of Ice Baths for MMA Fighters?
While there are plenty of benefits to taking ice baths, some expected risks are associated with them. In some cases, it is better to be safe than sorry. Let’s take a look below at some of the risks you could encounter when taking an ice bath.
Expect To Be Really Cold
Yes. That’s right. The most noticeable risk is getting cold. It might be a superficial effect, but it is still worth noting. The point of an ice bath is for it to be colder to cool off your body and constrict the blood vessels from letting blood flow too much. So, it will be plenty cold enough for you.
Still, another risk can be hypothermia. This could be caused by prolonged exposure to being in an ice bath.
Note: Do not hop into a warm shower right after an ice bath without consulting a physician. Instead, you might want to consider grabbing a sweatshirt, a blanket, or a warm drink.
It Can Be Dangerous for Those With High BP and CVD
The most significant risk for taking an ice bath applies to individuals who might have high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, or even diabetes. Those with high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease might already experience a decrease in blood flow.
A further reduction in blood flow can lead to a risk in the cardiac arrest of stroke. Further, those with diabetes might be affected because they are already prone to low body temperatures. An ice bath would lead to an extreme temperature change of their core temperature.
What Else Should I Know About Ice Baths?
Before you decide to take the plunge into that ice bath, there are some factors that you might want to consider. Let’s take a look at some of these below.
The Ideal Temperature
Before you hop into an ice bath, you should know that there are recommendations for the ideal temperature. Most rehabilitative specialists suggest a water temperature between 54 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (12 to 16 degrees Celsius).
However, if you are starting, it is recommended that you begin with a higher temperature. Once you have increased your exposure to this environment, you can slowly decrease a degree or two.
Note: Temperatures below 54 degrees Fahrenheit (12 degrees Celsius) can be dangerous, and we do not recommend going any lower! Consult your physician and make sure to use a thermometer to keep track.
Please do not assume that the colder the water is, the more beneficial it will be. Cooler water temperatures between 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit (16 to 24 degrees Celsius) can also be beneficial. It might not be as constricting on the blood vessels, but it still aids in active recovery.
Length of Staying in the Bath
The last thing you want to do is overexpose yourself to the ice bath temperatures. The recommended length of soaking in the bath is suggested for 10 to 15 minutes. Those just beginning should start at 10 minutes.
Keep in mind that you should not exceed 20 minutes as this will lead to prolonged exposure and the potential for increased risks.
Cold vs. Hot Water
Cold water and hot water are associated with different benefits. We’ve already discussed the benefits and reasons for taking an ice bath, which is to constrict the blood vessels, reducing blood flow. However, hot water is about the opposite.
By taking a hot bath, your body temperature will increase, and the blood vessels will dilate. Once the blood vessels dilate, it promotes your blood to flow and circulate to the muscles. This is not the best recovery method after exercise (or, in this case, fighting and training).
Still, it might be best for you to take a hot bath a few days after a big fight. This would have allowed the acute pain to recede. Then, the hot bath will help your blood circulate to aid in the healing process.
Ice Baths and 4 Other Methods for Improving Recovery Time for MMA Fighters
MMA fighters work hard and train hard. Although their bodies are in good shape, it is important to remember that they need to recover after a workout or a fight. Ice baths are beneficial, but there are other important methods for taking care of their bodies.
MMA nutritionists say that nutrition is critical to recovery. After fights, MMA fighters’ bodies can be dehydrated and depleted of protein, carbs, fats, and electrolytes. All of these nutrients are essential to muscle recovery and more.
They need protein specifically for muscle recovery, and carbs give them energy. Fats are important to help their organs recover and assist with brain function. Fighters need to eat healthy foods split into small meals every three hours, and they should drink plenty of water and take their vitamins.
Another component of recovery is rest. Fighters’ bodies need 7.5 to 8.5 hours of sleep every night regularly. However, they need even more sleep after a fight. MMA coaches say that fighters should plan on resting for a few days after a fight. It isn’t enough to sleep at night; after a fight, they need to take extra time to get more sleep for a few days. This is the best way for their bodies to recover.
Even when fighters are recovering from a big fight, they need to stay active. MMA trainers recommend that they engage in activity daily to break up the lactic acid stored in the muscles and loosen up their joints and tendons. When they move around, they help remove toxins that come from stressful MMA training. They can do light activities, such as stretching, yoga, walking, and some light shadowboxing.
Another part of recovery is massage and foam rolling. Massage helps to stimulate blood flow, relieve knots in the muscles, and help the body relax. A massage therapist or physical therapist not only helps fighters’ bodies recover, but they can notice little irregularities before they turn into injuries. The therapist will also keep the fighter’s muscles pliable and flexible. The recovering fighter may also choose to use a foam roller or massage gun for more convenience.
Ice Baths, Heat, and Steam
The benefits of ice baths are listed above as beneficial to muscle recovery. They use specific ice baths, or they can use their bathtubs if necessary. They help to reduce inflammation and flush out waste from the body. On the other hand, steam and heat can also help. They have a similar impact because they help remove toxins and release the stress that comes with tough training and fights.
Sauna suits are another way to use heat, but they are used mainly for enhanced cardiovascular benefits and increased oxygen uptake. They are also used in weight cutting before a fight, and then they rehydrate. They can weigh in without sacrificing their muscle mass.
The Fighter’s Body After a Fight
Recovery after a fight is essential. Although they can have injuries anywhere on their bodies, certain parts of the body are more likely to receive greater damage. This includes taking leg kicks, the thighs, rib injuries, the torso, and the head. They have swelling and cuts around their eyes, and they often suffer broken jaws and broken noses.
All of the injuries can heal, and ice baths are a great place to start to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness. This is one of the primary benefits of taking an ice bath (or cold bath) after a fight.
Elite athletes have an arsenal of recovery methods at their disposal and an ice bath is just one of them. As we all know, each person is different, so we suggest trying different methods to find what recovery method works best for you.
If you find ice baths helpful in your MMA training, as many often do, then you might want to modify the bath so that it fits your personal needs. You can experiment further with cryotherapy and other cold therapy forms to naturally enhance your recovery process for a successful fight camp.
- Research Gate: The Effects of Chronic Cold Water Immersion in Elite Rugby Players
- Research Gate: The effect of Cold Water Immersion During a Pre-Season Week in Elite Rugby Athletes
- CDN Science PUB: The Physiological Response to Cold-Water Immersion Following a Mixed-Martial Arts Training Session
- Sweet Science of Fighting: Science of Ice Bath Recovery for Fighters: In-Depth Guide
- My MMA News: New Study Proves Ice Baths Beneficial for MMA Fighters
- Research Gate: Ice Bath Therapy on Athletes Recovery Response Using EEG