Brrr… To Ice Bath or not to Ice Bath?

English: Weightlifter Karyn Marshall in an ice...
English: Weightlifter Karyn Marshall in an ice-bath as part of athletic training in July 2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I do it in the summer. I do it in the winter.  I did it five times this week.

Even Meb Keflezighi does it.

My mother thinks I’m crazy.  My father is disgusted.  My sister thinks I’ve taken things too far. Why?

It’s called an ice bath, and I swear by them.  After my long runs and intense workouts (read: speed training and hills), I fill my bathtub full of cold water and a bag full of ice from the gas station down the street and hop in.

BRRR!

You’ve probably heard the term “ice bath,” but in case you’re unfamiliar, the ice bath is a post-running strategy used to prevent injuries caused by running long distances or high(er) speeds. According to this Runner’s World article Ice Baths: Cold Therapy the medical rationale behind is the ice bath is Cryotherapy which; “constricts blood vessels and decreases metabolic activity, which reduces swelling and tissue breakdown. Once the skin is no longer in contact with the cold source, the underlying tissues warm up, causing a return of faster blood flow, which helps return the byproducts of cellular breakdown to the lymph system for efficient recycling by the body. “Ice baths don’t only suppress inflammation, but help to flush harmful metabolic debris out of your muscles.” Simply put, ice baths help our muscles to recover more quickly and efficiently from the damage and inflammation caused by running hard and/or long.

Some runners swear by ice baths, some (like my laugh out loud recent read, Runner’s Rule Book by Mark Remy) don’t think they are a necessary part of successful training plan.  One recent study found that ice baths don’t actually do anything (medically) that aids in recovery.  Some (like me) simply refused to do them. I refused to do them because they are cold. Very very cold. I hate cold.

But after my hip injuries and some nagging shin pain, I decided to give them a try.  After all, if EVERYONE was doing it (read: some runners I knew and my coach), it was worth a try.  I’ll try anything to keep running.

For my first ice bath, I simply filled my bathtub full of Utah fresh winter cold water (At the chilly temperature of 55 degrees. Yes, I measured it using a handy cooking thermometer.) and stepped into the bath. My feet literally felt pain like no other, so after I sat down in the bathtub, I had to remove my feet from the water so only the upper half of my lower body was submerged.

It was very cold. I only made it 5 minutes. However, I could already tell post-bath that my legs felt better. Fresher. All day long.

I was sold. I’m a sucker for fresh legs.

For my second attempt, I wore a sweatshirt in the bathtub. Additionally, because I have painfully poor circulation in my feet, I also kept my running socks on as well as my runner’s undergarments. I also brought in my iPOD to do some ice bath tweeting and survived FIFTEEN minutes.

After warming up (which took me a measly two hours), my legs felt 100% better. No shin pain. No abnormal hip pain.

Fresh legs.

I should make a t-shirt. “I went to ice bath land and all I got was fresh legs.”

Science and naysayers be darned, ice baths work for me.

Do they work for you?  If you haven’t tried it, what are you waiting for?

Ultrarunner, yoga teacher, academic, and feminist. I write about ultrarunning, feminism, and the intersection of running and life.

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22 comments

  1. I like a good ice bath after a hard long run too, but I can’t do it in the winter. This therapy is reserved only for the summer time for me. 🙂 When I do it, I sit in all of my running clothes too. My youngest son usually helps me with the ice and will hang out with me. My rule of thumb is to sit in there until all of the ice melts (I just use whatever is in our ice-maker). Works like a charm.

  2. I haven’t gotten brave enough to try it yet. But I do respect the power of cold on my muscles so after a long or hard run, I take a large ice pack and sit on it – 5 minutes at a time on one hamstring, the other hamstring, then a quad, then the other quad, then back to the start if I have that much time.

  3. I’ve always noticed that my long ride legs feel better after a cold ocean swim the next day. And then when I found out my BQ girlfriends do ice bath after every long run, I was sold. I’ll try my first one this weekend and let you know what I think, but the info about keeping your clothes on was invaluable. And now I know how much ice I use. Would probably had an embarrassing “naked and passed out in a block of ice” incident otherwise.

    1. Ha! That reminds me … The first time we did ice baths my husband and I got 2 22 pound bags of ice! It was excruciating!!! So happy to discover an 8 pound bag is more than sufficient.

  4. I used to ice baths somewhat regularly, but then read that studies showed ice baths impede the physiological adaptions of training (as do anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen), so I stopped doing them. But this post got me thinking of that fresh leg feeling. I remember feeling like the more I did ice baths the less of that fresh leg feeling I’d get afterwards – it was like my body built up a resistance or something. Anyone else experience this?

    Perhaps like gels, if you save ice baths for race day (or the night before in this case) then not only will you not impede the training adaptations, but you’ll have extra fresh legs for race day because you didn’t build up a resistance?

  5. I was going to say the same thing as Laura- the latest thinking is that while they may feel good (after!) they MAY be inhibiting some of the body’s natural recovery.

  6. I was going to say the same thing as Laura- the latest thinking is that while they may feel good (after!) they MAY be inhibiting some of the body’s natural recovery.

    I’ve never had the guts to do one, though. 🙂

  7. I swear by ice baths as well, although I’ve been lax about doing it this winter because it’s been so cold. I completely agree that they help with recovery. The sweatshirt on top is a must and so is a warm drink!

    1. I like it because my bath water is so cold, I don’t feel like I need to add ice (so no excuses NOT to do one because I didn’t pick up ice)! I have to keep my socks on too or my feet get too cold.

  8. Wow! Best timing ever on this post! Last night I got done with 8 x 1200s and knew I should ice but the negative temps really reduced my motivation. Result? My legs are killing today.

    I’m a big fan of ice baths in summer. There is no better way to make sleeping at night after a hard workout comfortable. It’s just hard in the winter to make additional freeze time sound good.

    I had a new idea this morning: would sitting in a snow bank do the same thing as an ice bath? Has anyone tried it? It would sure be cheaper than buying ice.

  9. I used to be an ice bath devotee, but I haven’t done them lately given the latest round of studies re: inhibiting recovery. And let’s be real, it was such a love/hate thing that I didn’t need much pushing into skipping them altogether!

    That said, here are my tips for making them bearable: wear the biggest sweatshirt you own, pour yourself a big mug of something warm to drink and somehow otherwise occupy yourself (magazine, texting, playing games on phone). I could never do it if I were just sitting watching the clock!