Many runners swear by ice baths. Many of these same runners also swear while in their ice baths. The reason: They’re doing it wrong.
While training for my first marathon, I decided to try an ice bath after one of my long runs. I’d heard plenty of good things about how ice baths can reduce soreness and speed up recovery. It all sounded good to me, so I went for it.
I mistakenly believed you simply pour some ice in the tub, fill it up with water, strip down, sit in the freezing soup as long as you can stand it, and emerge a faster, stronger runner. Not so much.
After 2 or 3 breath-wrenching minutes, I finally got myself lowered into icy water up to my navel. My skin puckered up immediately and my legs began shaking soon after. Shivers quickly spread up my body until my teeth were chattering and I was shuddering from head to toe. I held my arms tightly to my chest and sat with every muscle in my body tense and quivering for what felt like an eternity. All tolled, it was only 12 minutes before I couldn’t take it any more and clumsily flopped out of the tub and onto the bathroom floor.
Still shaking violently, I drained the tub (it seemed to take forever) and got the shower going. Even though the water was cooler than my normal showers, it still shot needles of pain through my frigid, heavy legs. A few agonizing minutes later, I felt somewhat confident I might actually survive my ice bath ordeal.
This miserable experience would have been enough to scare me away from ice baths forever, except for the fact that it seemed to work. My calves and knees felt much fresher the next day, and running was easier than it usually was after long training days. I spent the next several weeks figuring out how to make ice baths a tolerable and even enjoyable part of my recovery program. Here’s what I learned.
1. Ice Baths Don’t Have to Have Ice.
It’s true. Depending on where you live, the coldest water that comes out of your tap may be all you need. You can get the benefits of cold therapy in water that is 50 – 60 degrees Fahrenheit. If your tap water is warmer than that, use the ice to bring it down to this range and no lower. (At least, not until you’ve already taken a few ice baths.)
2. Don’t Get Naked.
The goal of an ice bath is to apply cold therapy to the muscles, joints, and soft tissues of the lower body. It isn’t meant to be a dance with hypothermia. I learned that a winter beanie hat, fleece vest, and wetsuit booties all help to keep my core temperature up while allowing the cold water to do its work.
I also leave my running shorts on. This provides a level of modesty (my kids find it fun to hang out with me while I’m trapped in the tub) and offers some thin, but welcome, protection where it’s needed most.
3. Start by Sitting in an Empty Tub.
This makes it easier and safer to get your sore body into the proper bathing position. Once seated, fill the tub with cold water (no ice yet). This gradual immersion helps your body adjust to the cold and stay relaxed. Once the water level is covering your legs completely, you can add ice if the water isn’t cold enough. (I keep a bucket of ice next to the tub.)
4. Keep the Water Moving.
If your tub has jets, use them (without heat, of course). If not, use your legs or hands to gently stir the water around in the tub. If you sit completely still, the water that’s in contact with your body will warm up and you may lose some of the benefits of the ice bath. By keeping the water moving, you ensure fresh, cold water is always in contact with your legs.
5. Ice Baths Aren’t Endurance Events.
You can benefit from an ice bath that’s just 5 – 10 minutes long. The first few times you bathe, keep it short. Once you know how your body handles the cold, you can stay in the tub longer and make the water colder if you’d like.
6. Warm up Slowly.
Resist the urge to go straight from the cold bath to a hot shower or tub. Start with cool or room temperature water and gradually warm things up from there. You want to avoid temperature differences great enough to cause tingling or pain to your skin.
7. Take Your Ice Bath Outside.
I am lucky enough to live in an area with plenty of streams and ponds that are below 60 degrees. Taking natural ice baths means I don’t have to set anything up inside and I can warm up afterwards by lying in the sun. It’s an awesome way to close out a long training day.
It’s Bath Time!
Follow these tips, and your first ice bath can be a rewarding (if a bit chilly) experience. After you take the plunge, leave a comment and let us know how it went.