Run Recovery: Ice Bath

After each of my long runs now, I take an ice bath. I had never done that before training for this marathon and I think it makes a huge difference in how I feel after covering a distance in the double-digits. In fact, I actually look forward to it after the runs because it has improved my recovery time so much.

Some facts:

  • Ice baths (aka Cryotherapy or cold therapy) constrict blood vessels and decrease metabolic activity, which reduces swelling and tissue breakdown
  • Once out of the ice bath, as the tissues underneath warm up the blood flows faster, thus sending oxygen to improve cellular function and flushing out a build-up of lactic acid, returning it to the lymph system to be recycled by the body.
  • Too much lactic acid can cause poor muscle function and, if allowed to build up over time, the athlete can experience tired, heavy legs.
  • Immersing oneself in cold water produces a longer lasting change in deep tissues and is more efficient for cooling many muscles simultaneously than using ice packs.

There are 4 stages in ice therapy:

  1. cold
  2. burning/pricking
  3. aching
  4. numbness

Once the athlete has reached the “numbness” stage, they should remove themselves from the ice (if there is any left, usually it has all melted!). Recommendations on time to stay in the ice bath vary wildly, numbers ranging from 5 – 30 minutes. After receiving a lot of great advice from people on this practice, I have figured out what works for me:

Ice Bath

  • Fill a bathtub with enough water to cover the hips. (I want to make sure my entire lower body receives the benefits.) I usually fill the tub in my spare bathroom the night before a long run, because water straight from the tap during the summer in Las Vegas is typically lukewarm. If I let it sit overnight, it cools down more so my ice doesn’t melt quite as fast.
  • Take a cool (lukewarm) shower to rinse all the salt build-up from my skin and hair. I don’t want to sit in the tub all dirty, it’s just my obsessive tendencies, but I also don’t want my shower to be too steamy before icing.
  • I wear a bikini bottom and a giant hoodie sweatshirt that I got from volunteering at a Relay For Life event for the American Cancer Society. Anything will work, the goal is to keep my upper half warm. I also make a mug of hot chocolate (in my awesome mug created by my friend Bethany, she sells some of her work on Etsy from time to time, if you’re interested. The mug is a nice size so you can stir the hot chocolate without splattering all over the counter!) to sip while I’m in the tub.
  • Dump all the ice from the automatic ice maker in the refrigerator into the tub. We have a pretty big ice bin, but sometimes it works better to take the ice out the night before and keep it in a bucket in the chest freezer in the garage. Then I can add the ice from the bucket AND the ice from the fridge. If you don’t have an ice maker, one or two bags of ice from a gas station should be sufficient.
  • Brace myself, step into the tub and gently lower myself to sit. Try to control the urge to scream and swear, grip the hot chocolate and I usually try to flip through a magazine to keep my mind off the pain.
  • Stay in the tub for about 15 minutes. The ice is usually all melted, my legs have become numb and I have usually adapted to the cold by this time.

Generally it is not considered wise to jump straight into a hot shower AFTER ice baths because you undo some of the cold benefits. You body needs to warm up on its own, from the surge of blood being pushed by your heart. That’s another reason why I do my rinse down before icing.

So for all you runners out there, what are your thoughts on ice baths? Do you have any tricks you follow when doing these? And you non-runners out there… I know you thought we were crazy before, does this just help confirm those suspicions?

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