Wise Running

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Ice Bath for Runners: Benefits and Recommendations

Since I have been dealing with some minor injuries lately, one my friends suggested that I take ice baths after my runs.  She specifically mentioned it as being beneficial in terms of my plantar fasciitis.  I have heard of ice baths, but had not followed through up to this point… mostly because I have not had any significant injuries.  With the luck that I have had lately, however, it sounded like a good idea.

ice bathAs I was taking my very first plunge, I began to wonder:  “Is it worth it?”.  I resolved then and there to search for the scientific foundation of this method of treating injuries.  Here is what I found in therms of benefits and recommendations:

Benefits:

Many elite runners and not-so-elite running enthusiasts that consider ice baths to be beneficial based on their own experience.   They claim that it leads to a quicker recovery and less pain.  So how does it accomplish this?  After about 6 minutes in the icy water, your blood rushes to the area to rescue you from the cold.  This rush is what helps to flush out the metabolic debris that might otherwise take days to flush out.  In the meanwhile, the cold is reducing the inflammation in the area.  This combination makes ice cold baths after a big workout a hot idea!

Recommendations:

While the current research does not tell us what protocol is ideal for ice baths, we do know a few things.  The most important thing to remember is that ice baths of over 20 minutes can be detrimental.  You body will actually begin to break down after 20 minutes in ice cold water.  Most experts suggest that runners submerge their legs for 6-10 minutes, just long enough to feel the blood rush in to save the day.

Possible Con:

One study found that ice baths after 90 minutes of exercise actually hindered the refueling process.  This is really only an issue if you plan back-to-back days with long runs, which is not a good idea anyway.

Conclusion:

From my experience, the recommendations of friends, and the scientific evidence, I would conclude that it is a good idea.  I will continue the ice baths as I recover from runs over 90 minutes.

What experiences have you had with ice baths?

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“Train hard, race easy, & enjoy the run!”  — P. Mark Taylor

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The Gift of Running: A Book for Runners & Future Runners  Wise Running Book COVER mockup

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Wise Running: Thoughts on Running and Life

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11 responses to “Ice Bath for Runners: Benefits and Recommendations

  1. Mike August 8, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    I’ve not done ice baths for treating injury so much as to prevent injury. I typically do ice baths when I get in the upper-teens and more of mileage. Like you said…after a hard work out.

    As for how to do it, I’m on the wimpy side I suppose and go with the boiling frog (or freezing frog?) approach. I put the ice next to the tub and climb in, turn on the cold water and wait until it covers the quads before shutting off the water and dumping in the ice. That way the shock of the temp is not so bad. I give it about 10 minutes after the ice is dumped in.

    If I’m really thinking, I’ll prepare a recovery drink (smoothie or something) and sip on it while I’m ‘relaxing’ in the tub.

  2. Stephane August 8, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    Nice post Mark.
    I started the ice bath a month ago, while training hard for a 10K. Usually between 10 and 15 minutes. Science or not, it does help me recover from hard summer workouts. I do it once a week. It gets easier and easier. Also, I was told to eat a snack beforehand. Something to do with the blood flow.

  3. Steve Carmichael August 8, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    I usually take ice baths after runs of 14 miles or so when training for a marathon. I found that taking the ice bath after long runs, it takes the edge off any soreness the rest of the day. I set a timer and try to stay in 12-15 minutes tops. I also found I recover about a day or two faster especially with post exercise soreness with them. Many will take ice baths after shorter distances, as it is relative to your level of fitness. Runs under 14 miles usually do not cause soreness for me…

    If you can get past the initial shock of putting your lower body in ice cold water, it is well worth it. Also a couple of tips… put on a sweatshirt that you do not mind getting cold in, go ahead and wear your running clothes right in the ice bath. Also, I have a cup of coffee handy right next to the tub. I find it takes the edge off. If you have kids, have them put the ice in the tub and have it ready. They will get a big kick out of watching mom or dad, scream like a banshee when you hit the water….

  4. Daryl Cooch June 7, 2012 at 10:13 am

    When I first started running, my body was not used to the amount of wear and tear I was putting on my legs. I developed extremely painful shin splints that otherwise would have side lined me – all the literature and doctors I have heard referring to shin splints say that you need to either change shoes, slow down the intensity of the training, or just take time off from running completely until they have gone away — but many people that I know who are very experienced runners told me to, as long as there were no serious underlying injuries (like stress fractures), to try and keep running and push through the pain and eventually the muscle will build up enough to where it doesn’t hurt. I took the doctors advice at first, but every time the shin splints went away and I started running again, they would come back as strong as ever, no matter how much cross training I did. I eventually decided to keep running – to just suck it up and run through the pain until I built up the necessary muscles that would eventually lead to the end of my shin splints. The ONLY way that I got through this 3-4 month period was ice baths. There were times where I would get in from a 3 mile run and my legs would feel like they do now after I run a half marathon – achy and tight and so sore I could barely put pressure on them – I would immediately fill the tub up with ice cold water, dump ice in, and sit down before I could chicken out – it sucked for about 45 seconds and then I was fine. Afterwards I would get out of the bath and fill the tub up with hot water and pour epsom salt in, get back in the tub and just soak for an hour or however long I felt I needed. It’s hard to say how much the ice baths had a hand in me overcoming my shin splints because I have nothing to compare it to – but, I always felt like I had a new pair of legs after the process was over and felt fine to run after 36 hours had passed or so. I swear by them – I tell all my running friends, regardless of injuries, it’s a great way to treat a pair of legs that you rely on to perform. If you think about it, pitchers in baseball ice and heat their arms after they have pitched a game, to keep the muscles loose and fresh and injury free so they can pitch several nights in a row – why wouldn’t we do the same thing for our legs? :) Thanks for posting this!

  5. Caitlin August 3, 2012 at 11:00 am

    I’ve been struggling with plantar fasciitis myself lately and have just begun my buildup period before starting to train for my first full marathon. I would consider myself to have a pretty high pain tolerance but I can’t seem to get past the first couple minutes before the cold is too much. Do you think it is still beneficial if I raise the temp a little so it’s more bearable?

    • P Mark August 3, 2012 at 11:39 am

      Yes, but remember that the thing that makes it work is that the body rushes blood to the area to savbe it from the extremem conditions. If it is not that cold, you may not get the results you are seeking.

  6. Joe B. August 3, 2012 at 11:13 am

    I find them very beneficial, and my protocol is similar to Mike’s. I fill the tub with cold water, clench my teeth, and climb in. Honestly, it is only uncomfortable for a second, I think you go numb after that. I dump in one bag of ice and sit for five minutes. I then dump in a second bag and sit for another five minutes. I usually wear a sweatshirt up top. Not sure if you’re supposed to, but I generally follow this up with a hot bath or shower.

  7. Caitlin August 3, 2012 at 12:02 pm

    Thanks! I think I will try to go with Mike’s recommendation and get in the water then add the ice… Or maybe I just need to take off my tutu and toughen up!! Haha…

  8. krissy m. murphy September 18, 2012 at 8:53 pm

    I’m kinda sadistic and love the ice bath ;) HAHA. Well, I found what works for me anyway – I always have a cup of HOT coffee with me, wear a hoodie and have something to distract me (iPhone in a plastic bag, to avoid it taking an ice bath, too)

  9. Colin Hayes September 18, 2012 at 10:47 pm

    I guess I’m even MORE sadistic, since I fill the tub with cold water, dump the ice cubes in, and get in the tub sans ANY clothing. I also sip hot coffee or tea while I’m in there, and I crank up the bathroom heater ahead of time. I used to avoid a hot shower for an hour or more after the ice bath, but I’ve read some studies that say that a hot shower following an ice bath can be beneficial. I do find that my legs recover quicker after the ice baths, but I’m currently unable to run longer distances, so it’s been awhile since I’ve taken one. I really believe in them, though.

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