Recovery 102: On Ice Baths and Other Shenanigans

About a week ago I wrote about how to speed your recovery between workouts.  I mentioned things like sleep and L-Glutamine and nutrition and hot baths.  The discussion that followed in the comments was an interesting one in which new readers Coach Volk and Ultra Rob both extolled the virtues of the ice bath.

Ultra Rob also correctly pointed out that a hot bath is probably the opposite of what you should do after a strenuous workout.  (The goal being to prevent and reduce muscle inflamation, not encourage it with more heat.)

As you can imagine, I was not super thrilled to be reminded of the ice bath.  After running for 80 minutes in 34 degree pouring rain, it’s hardly appealing.  MtMann correctly observed that I am already getting an ice bath of sorts in the streets.

But I knew that they were both right.  In fact, I did my research and discovered that Paula Radcliffe is also a huge devotee to the Ice Bath Cult.  (I like Paula for a lot of reasons.  Her strong anti-doping stance and blistering speed aside, she also rocks some extremely nerdy knee-high running socks with bravado.  Also, she looks like a piece of gristle, which is pretty cool.)

So after last week’s character-building, bike-crashing workout, I tried to sit in an ice bath.  I only lasted 30 seconds, which I noted in my workout report.  Coach Volk noticed this and quoted Yoda: "Do or do not, there is no try."

Now, I’m going to cut Coach some slack for bringing Yoda into this, because he had a point (yet again!).

So, Friday after my fast 10 miler, I did it.  I sat my ass in an ice bath and stayed put for 12 minutes. 

I hate to tell you this but… it’s really effective!

And after 2 minutes, you really do stop thinking that your legs are going to explode with pain.  Once you’re numb, the rest is easy. :)

With this breakthrough, post-workout ice baths have officially been indoctrinated as part of my recovery strategy.  The theory behind the ice bath is pretty simple:

  • The icy cold causes the blood vessels to tighten, and drains the blood along with waste products such as lactic acid out of the legs.
  • Helps minimize inflamation and pain associated with tiny, microscopic tears that occur during intense physical activity

It should be noted here, that as with every freaking thing out there, there is also evidence to suggest that ice baths do not have the claimed effect.  The BBC article "Sports Star Ice Baths Questioned" reported on the most recent study, which was published in British Journal of Sports Medicine (this is an academic journal so access to the full study requires payment, but you can read the abstract there).

As with everything, you have to decide about the ice bath for yourself.  While you’re figuring that out, I’ll be pretending I’m Lynne Cox (great book, by the way!!) and sipping hot tea while my lower half slowly loses all sensation.

Here’s one tip if you do decide to give it a go:  Get in the bath and start running the cold water.  Add the ice gradually as the water rises.  Also, I have two re-usable ice-packs that I float in the bath with my like gigantic ice cubes.  Sitting in the water while it’s filling up somehow makes the whole process easier to take – I can tell you I found it much easier than simply trying to jump in!

I think this is the same phenomenon that happens with frogs in hot water – throw them in boiling hot water and they’ll jump out.  Heat the water gradually around them and they’ll never know what hit them.

(Yes, it does disturb me that I find the boiling frog analogy applicable to the ice bath ritual but I’m going to ignore that strange, uneasy feeling.)

If you’re interested in reading more, Google Scholar can tell you all it knows about alternating hot and cold water immersions .  There was also recently a great post about recovery by The Relentless Runner (cool site, fast kid, check it out).

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  1. I am very proud of you!

  2. Another great thing to do if you’re at the gym: after weights or a hard workout, jump in the pool and swim or kick out a few laps slowly. The cool water has the benefit of cooling down your legs, and I find swimming to generally be very stress-reducing (I always swim after centuries). Then leap into the hot tub and use the jets on your legs to work out any tension. Then jump back in the pool for 3-4 laps, then back in the heat again. Ahhhh yeah. You will feel so relaxed you won’t even know what hit you.

  3. Here’s another very effective one:

    After running, lay down on the floor with your rear at the juncture of wall/floor… and your legs up the wall.

    Lay there for about 5 minutes and massage the legs from ankles to hips for another 5 or so. Then stand and walk around.

    Then foam roll.

    That is less painful than an ice bath and seems to work wonders for me after running Mt. Tabor 3 times in a row on Wednesdays.


  4. Well it took about two months, but I finally simultaneously had the opportunity and nerve to try this. The results I think were good … I believe less pain and stiffness today than I’d be feeling if I hadn’t done the ice bath. But I don’t know how frequently I can deal with the painful numbing and thawing of the feet. If I could keep my feet warm in the process, I’d LOVE the ice bath.

  5. I’ve tried the ice baths on occasion, and am not completely sold on their benefits. I may conduct some additional research over the next couple weeks of heavy bike training and see what happens.


  1. Stephanie’s Fitness Blog » Road Ride - 30 miles - 30 Mar 2008 » Sweat365 » Fitness Community - [...] today’s ride I decided there wasn’t going to be a better opportunity to try the ice bath recomended by ...
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