Better Recovery With Ice Baths
By Steven Miarhci, as featured in the September 2006 issue of Running Times Magazine here.
With the last of the junior sprinters pulling in 65-second 400s, a grueling interval workout grinds to a close at Saint Andrew’s School in Boca Raton, Florida. Coach Eddie Ernest Jones, a 1:05 half-marathoner, glances over his gasping crew and intuits exactly what their burnt-out bodies require. "Ice baths!" he barks, and the tumultuous cacophony of outrage and joy that issues from the students expresses perfectly the mysterious, Gothic aura surrounding this frigid recovery tool.
Mythic as it may sound, ice bathing has caught on among the elite. A photo on Paula Radcliffe’s site shows the marathon world record holder relaxing her legs in a chilly stream. Meb Keflezighi’s preparation for the 2004 Olympic marathon included similar daily soakings. Saint Andrew’s athletic trainer Craig Ashley, who holds a Master of Science degree in Exercise and Sports Sciences, says that hydrotherapy’s benefits span the anatomical spectrum: "Ice immersion is a very effective modality in the treatment of subacute injuries or inflammation, muscular strains, and overall muscular soreness."
From lacrosse to football, athletes of all seasons consult Ashley with their pains, often to be pointed to the infamous "wet room" where the galvanized tubs reside. Why not simple ice packs? "When an individual removes an ice pack after the typical 20-minute application, temperatures within the muscles increase instantly," Ashley explains. Packs may suffice for surface-level pain, but for deep, lasting treatment, baths can’t be beat. "Even after the conclusion of the treatment," Ashley says, "the muscles will continue to cool."
For runners in particular, ice baths offer two distinct improvements over traditional techniques. First, immersion allows controlled, even constriction around all muscles, effectively closing microscopic damage that cannot be felt and numbing the pain that can. You may step into the tub to relieve sore calves, but your quads, hams, and connective tissues from hips to toes will gain the same benefits, making hydrotherapy an attractive preventive regimen. Saint Andrew’s cross-country coach John O’Connell, a 2:48 masters marathoner, will hit the ice baths before the ibuprofen. "Pain relievers can disguise injury," he warns. "Ice baths treat both injury and soreness."
The second advantage involves a physiological reaction provoked by the large amount of muscle submerged. Assuming you have overcome the mind’s initial flight response in those first torturous minutes, the body fights back by invoking a "blood rush." This rapid transmission circulation flushes the damage-inflicting waste from your system, while the cold water on the outside preserves contraction. Like an oil change or a fluid dump, the blood rush revitalizes the very areas that demand fresh nutrients.
Even if you don’t have access to a $5,000 hydrotherapy pool, you can set up the same ice bath at home. Modern research points to 12–15º C or 54–60º F as the ideal ice bath temperature range; remember that the temperature will rise steadily with your body heat. Significantly colder baths offer no additional perks and can actually perpetrate cold-induced muscle damage or spontaneous fainting—a good reason to have a friend watch your back while sharing in the misery.
Once you feel the blood rush around the six-minute mark, stay in for a couple more minutes, but don’t overdo it. Muscles and tissues can tense up with too much cold, and to avoid tightness you should take a warm shower 30 to 60 minutes later.
Though ice immersion may seem fantastic from afar, the superior recovery from your toughest days will find you burning a path back to your bath sooner than you think.
Stephen Mirarchi holds a Ph.D. in American Literature and is a seminarian at Kenrick-Glennon in Saint Louis. He celebrated his first half marathon, run in 1:23:57, with a cold bath and a colder beer.