In the high-impact world of MMA and the UFC, where athletes constantly push their bodies to the limit, ice baths are a crucial recovery tool.
In this article, we’ll explain why MMA/UFC fighters take ice baths by looking at the main benefits they offer, supported by scientific studies.
Although this article is focused on MMA/UFC fighters, the following benefits are relevant to all fighters and combat sports athletes.
- Why Do MMA/UFC Fighters Take Ice Baths?
- Are There Any Cons of Ice Baths for MMA/UFC Fighters?
- When Should MMA/UFC Fighters Take Ice Baths?
- Which UFC/MMA Fighters Take Ice Baths?
- The Bottom Line
Why Do MMA/UFC Fighters Take Ice Baths?
MMA/UFC fighters take ice baths for benefits such as accelerated recovery, reduced pain and inflammation, sharpened focus and mental fortitude, enhanced sleep, boosted metabolic rate, and a strengthened immune system.
Overall, ice baths are a useful tool in helping UFC/MMA fighters improve their training and fight performance, and therefore career.
Having said this, the use of ice baths, also known as cold water immersion (CWI), in sports and exercise recovery has been the subject of numerous studies, but the results are mixed and sometimes contradictory.
So, let’s go through the 6 top benefits of ice baths for MMA/UFC fighters which are backed by scientific studies (linked throughout).
1. Accelerated Recovery
A 2022 Systematic Review with Meta-analysis and Meta-regression (looking at 52 studies) concluded cold water immersion is an effective recovery tool after high-intensity exercise, with positive results for:
- Muscular power
- Muscle soreness
- Perceived recovery 24 h after exercise (placebo)
- Reducing creatine kinase (a marker often elevated after muscle damage)
These findings are corroborated by a 2018 study that looked at the effects of cold water immersion in rugby players during an intense 3-week training phase.
It found they had benefits such as reduced fatigue and muscle soreness.
This reduction in muscle soreness is particularly beneficial in alleviating the symptoms of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).
DOMS is a common condition experienced by athletes following periods of intense exercise, characterized by muscle pain, stiffness, and reduced range of motion.
How does it accelerate recovery?
The cold immersion in an ice bath helps constrict blood vessels and decrease metabolic activity, reducing swelling and tissue breakdown.
This process, known as vasoconstriction, also aids in flushing out metabolic debris from the muscles.
Once the body returns to its normal temperature, the underlying tissues warm up, initiating a return flow of blood that aids in the restoration and recovery process.
This phase, known as reperfusion, is crucial as it improves blood circulation, helping deliver fresh oxygen and nutrients to the muscles, which are essential for effective recovery.
Overall, ice baths can accelerate recovery, meaning MMA/UFC fighters who use ice baths can recover faster and train more often than fighters who don’t.
2. Reduced Inflammation and Pain
MMA/UFC fighters also take ice baths because they reduce inflammation and pain.
This is especially useful post-fight when MMA/UFC fighters are injured and want the recovery process to start as quickly as possible so they can get back to training.
How are inflammation and pain reduced?
Ice baths reduce inflammation and pain by inducing vasoconstriction, the narrowing of blood vessels upon exposure to the cold.
This constriction reduces blood flow to the muscles, thereby decreasing the inflammatory response typically occurring after intense physical activity.
This immediate response is crucial for controlling the inflammatory process post-exercise, preserving joint mobility, maintaining muscle function, and decreasing injury risk.
This reduction in inflammation can also speed up the recovery process because the body doesn’t have to spend as much energy fighting inflammation.
This makes it more efficient in repairing micro-tears and other tissue damage common in high-intensity sports.
UFC fighters also use ice baths to reduce inflammation as it can help prevent the onset of chronic issues.
This includes chronic joint pain, arthritis, or other musculoskeletal disorders arising from repeated injuries and long-term inflammation through frequent high-intensity training and fighting.
Lastly, ice baths also activate the sympathetic nervous system.
This leads to the release of endorphins and other neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, which have pain-relieving (analgesic) properties that aid in recovery and reduce pain post-fight/workout.
3. Increased Focus, Mental Resilience, and Energy
Another reason MMA/UFC fighters take ice baths is because they improve focus, mental resilience, mental clarity, mood, and energy.
Ice baths also help MMA/UFC fighters regulate their breathing in response to the shock of cold water.
This practice of controlled breathing under duress enhances their ability to stay calm and focused during stressful situations but also plays a vital role in sustaining endurance and facilitating more efficient recovery throughout a fight.
How does it work?
Ice baths provide mental benefits by initiating a shock to the body and stimulating the release of various neurotransmitters and hormones, including norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin.
Norepinephrine is known to increase alertness, attention, and focus, while dopamine is associated with the feeling of pleasure and adds to the reward system that can motivate an athlete’s continued effort and performance.
Serotonin, often referred to as the “happiness hormone,” contributes to well-being and happiness.
These boosts are invaluable to a fighter’s preparation and performance before a fight or training session.
Additionally, cold exposure activates the body’s sympathetic nervous system, triggering the fight-or-flight response. This results in a surge of adrenaline and the release of stress hormones.
These can provide a significant energy boost, enhancing a fighter’s performance during intense physical activities, similar to the energizing effects of caffeine.
Also, ice baths can be mentally challenging, especially for beginners.
Overcoming this discomfort can build mental resilience, helping fighters develop the mental toughness required to cope with the intense stress and pain they experience during and after fights.
This enhanced mental fortitude is crucial in the highly competitive and physically demanding world of MMA.
Lastly, ice baths can also lead to a release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, which are known to improve mood and reduce stress and anxiety.
4. Improved Sleep
Ice baths may also improve sleep quality, which is crucial for MMA/UFC fighters as much of their success stems from optimal sleep, rest, and recovery.
This is supported by a 2021 study investigating the effects of cold water immersion (CWI) on sleep and recovery among well-trained male endurance runners.
The study found that whole-body cold immersion led to a significant increase in slow-wave sleep (SWS) during the initial hours of the night, as well as reduced nighttime awakenings and decreased limb movements.
This is further supported by a 2011 study that examined the influence of daily cold water immersion (CWI) on the autonomic nervous system and subjective well-being in highly-trained swimmers.
The research revealed engaging in CWI daily over five training days enhanced parasympathetic activity, which is associated with relaxation and recovery, and improved subjective sleep quality among the participants.
How is sleep improved?
The body’s thermoregulation processes play a key role.
Immersing in cold water drops the core body temperature, and the subsequent re-warming that occurs during sleep promotes sleep onset and increases slow-wave sleep (deep sleep).
This is in line with research indicating a decline in core body temperature close to bedtime can facilitate sleep initiation and enhance sleep quality.
Furthermore, the initial shock of cold exposure activates the sympathetic nervous system, leading to a spike in alertness and energy — the “fight or flight” response.
However, this is followed by a compensatory increase in parasympathetic nervous system activity, the “rest and digest” system.
This shift helps the body relax, recover, and, crucially, transition into a state conducive to sleep.
5. Increased Calorie Burn
A 2000 study found cold water immersion (14 degrees C) increased metabolic rate by up to 350%.
The higher your metabolic rate, the more calories you burn at rest.
This is useful for MMA/UFC fighters as they need to eat high-calorie diets to provide them with optimal energy levels for training, while also keeping their body fat and weight close enough to their contracted weight class.
How is the metabolic rate increased?
When the body is exposed to cold temperatures during an ice bath, it strives to maintain its core internal temperature.
To do this, it has to generate more heat, which involves burning calories for energy, thereby increasing the metabolic rate. This process is known as thermogenesis.
The metabolic rate is also increased because ice baths activate brown adipose tissue (BAT).
When brown fat is activated, it consumes glucose and lipids from the bloodstream to generate heat, a process contributing to an increased metabolic rate and therefore calorie burn.
Note: The specific effects of ice baths on metabolism and overall health can vary from person to person, and more studies are needed to fully understand these effects.
6. Improved Immune Function
One of the lesser-known but equally significant benefits of ice baths for MMA/UFC fighters is the potential enhancement of the body’s immune response.
This is supported by a 2011 study, which researched the effect of winter swimming on various blood parameters (clinical indicators of health and disease).
The study found there to be notable increases in:
- Red blood cells count by 4.7%
- White blood cells count by 40.6%
- Platelets count by 25.0%
- Neutrophil granulocytes, lymphocytes, and monocytes (white blood cells) by 42.6%
These findings suggest cold water immersion stimulates the body’s immune system, preparing it to respond more robustly to stress and infection.
Also, a 2022 study providing a comprehensive review of the effects of cold water immersion (CWI) on health, concluded positive effects on the immune system in terms of increased tolerance to stress and respiratory infections.
However, it also concluded further research is needed.
How is immune function improved?
The human body is designed to adapt to various stressors, cold being one of them.
When exposed to cold water, the body reacts by regulating its internal temperature and modifying its immune system.
This adaptation, known as hormetic stress, involves the increased production of white blood cells, including lymphocytes, monocytes, and granulocytes, which play a critical role in the body’s defense against infections.
Additionally, the stress of cold exposure triggers the production of heat shock proteins (HSPs).
These proteins repair damaged proteins and protect cells, potentially leading to an enhanced immune function.
Overall, improving immune function and staying healthy and infection-free is crucial for MMA/UFC fighters as it means they can stick to their training schedules and remain at the top of their game.
Are There Any Cons of Ice Baths for MMA/UFC Fighters?
The potential cons of ice baths for MMA/UFC fighters are limiting muscle growth, ineffectiveness, and dangerous health issues such as hypothermia, heart attacks, and nonfreezing cold injury (damage to soft tissues, nerves, and blood vessels).
Limiting muscle growth
This is supported by a 2017 study that researched the effects of cold water immersion and active recovery on inflammation and cell stress responses in human skeletal muscle after resistance exercise.
The study concluded, that in the long term, regular cold water immersion appears to be detrimental to developing muscle strength and hypertrophy.
This is because CWI interferes with the natural inflammatory processes crucial for muscle repair, adaptation, and growth over the long term.
This is further supported by a 2015 study, which conducted two separate studies researching the effects of cold water immersion (CWI) on muscle adaptations to strength training.
The study found cold water immersion (CWI) slows down short-term increases in certain muscle cells and protein activity, both vital for muscle growth. This could result in less muscle strength and growth over time.
This means MMA/UFC fighters should avoid ice baths or cold water immersion after a hypertrophy workout and instead use them before.
The same 2017 study (above) also suggested cold water immersion is no more effective than active recovery for minimizing the inflammatory and stress responses in muscles after resistance exercise.
Coupled with inaccessibility and time consumption, ice baths may be seen by some fighters as a waste of time.
Nonfreezing cold injury
While less common in the context of ice baths, there’s a potential risk for nonfreezing cold injuries if the exposure is prolonged (over 15 minutes).
Nonfreezing cold injury describes a spectrum of injuries that happen when the skin and its underlying tissues are exposed to cold environments for an extended time, without actually freezing.
This can lead to a range of vascular and nerve damage, manifesting as persistent coldness, tingling, or pain in the exposed areas.
The injury is a result of direct cold-induced cellular damage and secondary injury from the body’s own physiological responses to cold.
‘NFCI can result in lifelong debilitation including persistent pain, hyperhidrosis, and cold sensitivity, in extreme circumstances it may necessitate amputation of the injured extremity.’
To avoid these issues, ice baths shouldn’t be used for longer than 15 minutes.
For individuals with underlying heart conditions, the shock of cold water can cause a sudden spike in blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing, potentially leading to heart complications.
The sudden temperature drop in an ice bath can also lead to hypothermia, especially if the immersion exceeds the recommended 15 minutes.
Hypothermia can strain the cardiovascular system and impair mental and physical functions. Severe cases can be life-threatening.
Note: While underlying heart conditions may not be widely reported among MMA/UFC fighters, fighters taking PEDs might need to exercise extra caution as the heightened blood pressure or other heart-related side effects from PEDs could potentially increase the risk of heart complications when taking ice baths.
When Should MMA/UFC Fighters Take Ice Baths?
MMA/UFC fighters should take ice baths:
- Post-injury (from fighting/training/sparring) – to help with recovery and prevent muscle wasting when inactive.
- Post-training – to reduce inflammation and muscle soreness, potentially speeding up the recovery process.
- Before training – to boost energy and focus (avoid ice baths post-weight training as it may reduce hypertrophic response).
- During fight camp – to help sustain intensive training routines by improving focus, bolstering recovery, and reducing the risks of overtraining.
- Between training sessions (on days with multiple training sessions) – to increase focus, energy, and feelings of rejuvenation that can improve performance.
These are the best times for UFC fighters to take ice baths, as supported by the benefits above and the findings of a 2017 meta-analysis and performance study.
The study showed ice baths are beneficial within competition settings, particularly those requiring a short turn‐around (such as accepting short-notice fights or training multiple times per day), of particularly damaging nature, or in high environmental temperatures.
The same study concluded, based on (Roberts et al 2015 study), ‘there remains a lack of justification for using CWI regularly during a ‘pre‐season’ or preparation phase where the goal includes a hypertrophic response, due to the potential of dampening the adaptive response to training’.
Which UFC/MMA Fighters Take Ice Baths?
The following UFC/MMA fighters are known to take regular ice baths:
- Cris Cyborg
- Fedor Emelianenko
- Georges St-Pierre
- Glover Teixeira
- Henry Cejudo
- Islam Makhachev
- Jan Blachowicz
- Jon Jones
- Michael Bisping
- Nate Diaz
- Rafael dos Anjos
- Tom Aspinall
Tom Aspinall credits his composure and mental resilience to frequent ice baths and cold exposure.
He said, “I think it’s part of the reason I stay so calm, especially in my last fight. Obviously, it was a massive fight and I was in the ice baths every day then, as I am at the moment.
I just try and use it to stay calm because immersing yourself in freezing cold water is not easy and neither is fighting in front of 20,000 people. So if you can stay calm in one aspect, it helps you to stay calm in other aspects.”
Glover Teixeira said he regularly takes ice baths to sharpen his focus and energy. He also likes to face discomfort to foster personal growth.
Jan Blachowicz said he takes ice baths for enhanced recovery, mental conditioning, and better breath control.
The Bottom Line
So, ‘Why do MMA/UFC fighters take ice baths?’
MMA/UFC fighters take ice baths for benefits such as accelerated recovery, reduced pain and inflammation, sharpened focus and mental fortitude, enhanced sleep quality, boosted metabolic rate, and a strengthened immune system.
Potential cons of ice baths for MMA/UFC fighters include limiting muscle growth, nonfreezing cold injury, ineffectiveness, and potential heart complications for those with underlying heart conditions.
The best times for UFC/MMA fighters to take ice baths are post-injury, post-training, during fight camp, between training sessions, and before weight training.