The ice bath experiment

I hit this trail this morning for a 10 mile run.


This is the third time I ran the same 10 mile run in the last several weeks. I was still recovering from my knee injury during round one and went super slow. Oh what bliss! (Make note of how I wrote about my recovery in the past tense. Yippy!)

I let myself run at my natural, comfortable pace during round two and was surprisingly sore the next day.  Today I attempted to run at half marathon pace + 20 sec/mile.  And failed.  I put forth way too much effort to miss my target pace by 2 sec/mile.  While I’m disappointed, I know my performance is the result of warmer temperatures and insufficient hydration (i.e. I didn’t hydrate at all.). 

See what a nice day it was?  I could have used some fog!


But I digress.  After last week, I knew I needed to do something that would help me recover quicker.  So I tried this ice bath thing. And it was not pleasant.  But worth it, right?  Well…

You should know something about me.  I’m a bit of a geek.  I did math worksheets as a kid for fun.  I’m an engineer by degree, and will never purchase a Macintosh computer because the spreadsheeting capabilities of Microsoft Excel are limited. So while I’m always open to suggestions like, “Take an ice bath,” the first thing I want to know is, “Why does it work?”  And then, “Show me the data.”

This is why the second thing I did after subjecting myself to 10 minutes of frigid torture was research the infamous ice bath.  (The first thing I did was take a nap.)  And I figured I would share my learnings with anyone interested.  (Feel free to stop reading if you’re not.)  Please note that this is just the product of a day’s worth of internet research.  I am by no means an expert (or anything close) on the subject.

Why does it work?
There’s two parts to the theory.  While in the ice bath, blood vessels constrict.  This is just a fancy way of saying it reduces swelling in much the same way as an ice pack does.  The ice bath, however, covers more area and is, therefore, more efficient in reducing swelling.

When you get out of the ice bath, oxygenated blood rushes to your chilly extremities, removing “waste.”  I’m not quite sure what this “waste” is, but I gather we don’t want it. 

I found this particularly interesting because a number of Bikram yoga poses serve the same purpose.  Only instead of using ice (the room is 105 F after all), Bikram has us twist our limbs in a way that limits blood flow.  When the pose is released circulation of oxygenated blood increases.  The yoga teacher typically calls out scar tissue as one type of “waste” that is removed through this process.

But does it really work?
While many runners out there vouch for the ice bath, the data is actually inconclusive.  Some studies suggest it helps, some say it hurts and some just don’t know.

How long?
The optimal duration of the ice bath is also somewhat controversial.  I found recommendations of anywhere between 5 – 20 minutes.

The general consensus is that longer than 20 minutes is a bad idea and could lead to tissue damage (frostbite) or even hypothermia.  Water that’s too cold can also lead to tissue damage.  Most recommend temperatures between 50 – 60 F and caution against anything less than about 40 F.

What about a hot shower afterwards?
Most people think this not only doesn’t hurt, but actually helps by increasing oxygenated blood flow to the legs.  When to take the hot shower is up for debate.  Popular opinion is anywhere from immediately afterwards to an hour later.

This is all fine and good, but when do I stretch and put on my compression socks?
I actually didn’t find much on this.  I do know that your muscles are more flexible when they’re warm.  And I know that compression socks serve, more or less, the same purpose as the ice bath.  So here is my plan:

  1. Stretch immediately after running
  2. Subject myself to the dreadful ice bath for 10 min (Yes, I do plan on trying it out for awhile.)
  3. Shower immediately after the ice bath
  4. Put on compression socks when I get out of the shower

This is just my first crack at it.  Have you had success with ice baths?  What’s your routine?

11 thoughts on “The ice bath experiment

  1. I didn’t know much about them either, but everybody told me I should do them, so I was a good little runner and did them. Even though I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I ended up taking the exact same approach as you. Stretch, ice bath, shower, then socks. But wow, 50-60 degrees? I bet mine was too cold. I put a ton of ice in mine.

  2. I have not been brave enough to try the ice bath yet, but I’m guessing it is a good idea during my marathon training! Thanks for the info. I think I’m going to order some compression socks today. I have been wearing compression tights (capri length) for my hamstring issue and really LOVE them.

    BTW….did you decide to join us in Chicago yet?

    • I dig my compression (in my case) socks too. They feel MUCH BETTER than the ice! I decided to apply for the NYC marathon instead. Probably what will happen is I won’t get into NYC and by then Chicago will be sold out. I’ll just have to live vicariously through you!

  3. Here’s what has worked for me (so far, and there is zero scientific evidence behind this, obviously): Do nothing. No stretching, no ice bath, no compression socks, nothing. I do tend to shower at some point after a hard effort but that’s to wash away the stink!
    I got an over-use injury that surfaced about a week after my first marathon. Throughout that training cycle and after the marathon, I stretcehd, iced, etc. and ended up with an injury. That was nine years ago, I’ve done nothing ever since and so far so good (don’t worry, I am aware that this is more luck than anything else!).

    • Hahahahaha!!!! Well, as I discovered the other day, there isn’t really any data saying this stuff works. Maybe I should just stick with my current routine of laying on the couch for many hours after a long run.

    • Benicia of course! You can actually only get about 5 miles on an out-back on this trail. But I like running through the neighborhoods by the water too. Some of the houses make for equally beautiful scenery!

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