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Digital Running Club » Ask the Experts, Columns » Ask the Experts: Ice Baths

Ask the Experts: Ice Baths

“My friend told me I should take an ice bath following my long runs. That sounds a little crazy! Should I give it a try?”
-Pauline S. Omaha, NE

As cute as she is, her legs should actually be IN the ice...

Taking an ice bath following a long run is almost as much a tradition for marathon trainees as the post race medal. The theory behind it goes something like this:

Running hard and/or running for long periods of time causes micro trauma in the leg muscles. This is good because your muscles actually become stronger when these micro traumas are repaired. The cold temperatures of the ice bath help minimize inflammation and soreness associated with the micro traumas, just like the application of ice to a sprained ankle relieves pain and swelling in the ankle. In addition, the cold temperatures are thought to constrict blood flow in the superficial blood vessels, diverting blood flow through the deeper muscles. Finally, when the body is removed from the cold water, the tissues warm up and faster blood flow returns. This helps flush metabolic waste products like lactic acid from the surrounding tissues and into the lymphatic system where they can be recycled by the body.

There are many proponents of ice water baths following long runs, including me and women’s marathon world record holder, Paula Radcliffe. Some scientific studies have shown ice baths to be ineffective as a recovery strategy, however. In fact, a January 2007 article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (Sellwood, K. et al. 2007. Ice-water immersion and delayed-onset muscle soreness: a randomized controlled trial. Br J Sports Med. 41: 392-397) found no significant differences in pain, swelling, muscle function, or maximal isometric strength between participants who recovered from exercises with an ice bath and those who recovered in a bath of room temperature water. This study, however, used 5 sets of 10 repetitions on a leg extension machine as its exercise protocol. Though many other studies agree with the findings of this one, I’m unaware of a study which tests similar parameters on long distance runners.

Whether the ice bath recovery method has a legitimate physiological effect or if it’s just a placebo remains to be seen. It has never been found to be harmful, though. So, if you want to give it a try here are a few tips:

  • Sit in the tub and fill it with cold water to cover your legs. Next, add the ice.
  • Bring a book. The distraction will help.
  • Immerse your legs in the cold water for 10-20 minutes.
  • Survive the shock of the first 1-2 minutes and your legs will get a little numb, making the rest of your cold tub time easier!

Written by

Brian Darrow is a running coach in St. Petersburg, FL who specializes in online coaching for beginners. Follow him at ARunnersBlog.com

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