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?

24 comments

  1. I’ve only done one ice bath, it was after a three hour bike ride. When I got home, all I could think of was ICE. NOW. My quads were on fire, and my desire for an ice bath was nearly instinctive. PUT OUT THE FLAMES.

    Your description pretty much covers my approach. Just cover the legs and try to stay warm 😀 I love the hot chocolate idea! That will be especially nice this fall and winter… when I will definitely be needing ice baths regularly!

    (I love that mug! I think I need to pay Bethany a visit on Etsy.)

  2. The only thing I do differently is switch the hot cocoa to tea, and the magazine to a NY Times crossword puzzle.

    Ah, the ice bath. It’s a love/hate relationship.

  3. And people think we are crazy to love living in
    Alaska. At least we don’t willingly take a bath in the ice and snow 🙂 I guess what ever floats your boat…so to speak. Take care in all the ice, it can cause frostbite.

  4. I’m so glad that you found a use for the relay for life sweatshirt!! They are big and cozy! The hot chocolate and sweatshirt are the only parts of the ice bath that I indulge in 🙂

  5. I was poking around on the TnT site and on a whim searched for Whitakers who were running (it’s my maiden name). Have enjoyed reading your blog about training (I’m doing Nike) and have to agree 100% about the ice bath thing. Actually, I just wrote up my monthly mupdate (marathon update) and talked about the ice bath too! Mine was not nearly as ompressively knowledgeable about it though. Good luck with your continued running and Go Team!

  6. I’d die if I only wore a bikini bottom! I’m a wuss and leave my running tights on. Not sure how much it helps, but it’s a mental thing I suppose! 😀 Ice baths do make a world of difference, as does foam rolling – do you do that as well?

  7. LVGurl: The hot fluids make a huge difference. Bethany and I are probably going to be coordinating a drawing for one of her items in exchange for donations to my fundraising!

    Karen: Tea is good, but for some reason the hot chocolate seems like such a treat after a long run!

    Stub: If I lived in Alaska, I could probably count on the coldness of water straight from the tap to meet my ice bath needs. I know some people that live in places with cold rivers/lakes go sit in those after runs.

    Momm-O: The sweatshirt is perfect for this, I was glad to find a use for it too!

    Kristen: Thanks for commenting on my site. Good luck on your run too!

    BethT: I don’t do the foam roller, but lately I’ve been really thinking I should go pick one up!

  8. for up to how long after a long run does it remain effective for you to jump in an ice bath?? the sooner the better i’m guessing, but i’m doing a 20 mile race on sunday but wont ahve access to a bath straight away, so wondering if it would still be worth it say 90 mins 2 hrs alter when im home? i did my first ice bath this weekend though and my legs feel great so i want to try it again!!!

    • Claire: You’re right, the sooner the better… but getting in an ice bath within 2 hours after running would be fine. I know some runners wait until the evening after a morning long run, however I find that my legs start feeling better once I’ve done the ice bath so I can’t imagine delaying that improvement for so long!

      After my marathon in November I didn’t get in an ice bath for about 3.5 hours after the race and it still helped immensely. I think the optimal window would probably be within 4 hours of completion, but anytime during the following 12 hours would help.

  9. Sounds a lot like my ice-bath routine! I wear my heavy hooded sweatshirt from high-school cross country, and rely on a cup of green tea. I also need some good reading material to occupy me — I try to save the latest “Runner’s World” as a post-run reward for just that reason.

    For all the burning, pain and numbness, nothing works quite as well for getting rid of the sore spots!

  10. Love this post! I’m glad to see I’m not the only crazy runner out there that takes ice baths. None of my running friends here take them, but I feel like it’s such a great part of my recovery.

  11. Thanks for the wonderful post!! I sat in my very first ice bath last night… I sat in the tub for 20 minutes and can’t think of a time when my legs went “numb”… I added one 20 pound bag to the cold water, but maybe it wasn’t enough? Oh well! I’ll try it again after my next long run!! 🙂
    Also!! I ran 11.5 miles yesterday morning, did the ice bath last night and am wanting to run tomorrow… is it ok to ice bath again today?

    Thank you!!
    Malynda

    • Hi Malynda,

      Yeah, you could ice bath every day if you really wanted to! (Actually, taking a cold bath/shower at bedtime is supposed to be a great way to get you into a deeper sleep!) The numbness stage is when the ice/cold no longer feel quite so extreme. It doesn’t necessarily mean you go completely numb, just when you’re to the point where the temperature is no longer completely shocking to your system. Good luck with your training and ice bathing! 🙂

  12. I would change one thing. The order of when you and the ice goes in. I would put you in the water first and then put the ice in. You won’t get the initial shock.

  13. I prefer going to my local river and just chilling there for a little bit its just enough to make you shiver for a solid fifteen minutes and there’s nothing like cold running fresh water, being in nature and feeling mud and/or sand in your toes.

  14. thanks for the tips. not a runner, but in the army and did a 18 mile ruck march last night, legs were pretty sore, didnt know what to do but this helped.

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