Study pours cold water on theory that ice aids recovery

In the modern era of win-at-all-costs professional sport, the days of a few cans of lager in the post-match communal bath are long gone. Elite footballers, rugby players and athletes are now more likely to tip-toe into an ice bath with an energy drink. But Australian scientists have discovered that not only does the modern treatment have no effect - it may do more harm than good.

Ice baths became all the rage when Paula Radcliffe attributed her 10,000m gold medal in the 2002 European championships to ice treatment. "It's absolute agony, and I dread it, but it allows my body to recover so much more quickly," she said at the time. And the fad for cold therapy has caught on. This week, for example, the Irish rugby union squad is travelling to Spala in Poland to use a super-cold cryo-chamber as part of their preparations for the World Cup in September.

The theory is that cold treatment disrupts the muscle inflammation that follows hard exercise. That, in turn, reduces pain and means the athlete can get back on the training ground sooner.

The Australian team asked 40 volunteers to perform leg exercises before giving half of them ice baths and the other half a similar dip in tepid water. Measurements were taken of the swelling, the volunteers' pain levels, their performance in a hopping test and the levels of a chemical in their blood that indicates muscle damage. No differences between the two groups were found in any of the measurements, except that those who had received the ice therapy reported more pain in their muscles - exactly the opposite of what the treatment is supposed to achieve.

The finding is a surprise because so many athletes swear by it. "Most of them tell us that they feel they have less muscle pain and stiffness the following day after using the ice baths," said Peter Bruckner at the University of Melbourne, part of the team who published the research in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. "I would suggest that if [athletes] try the technique and feel that it helps, then they should continue to use it and not wait until there is scientific proof," he added.

But Greg Whyte, science co-ordinator at the English Institute of Sport, said: "There's an awful lot of fad in sport, much of which is not underlined by empirical evidence," he said. "The key question is: is this actually detrimental to performance?" He speculates that inflammation may be an important and beneficial part of the muscle's response to training.