It’s easier to say that sitting in a tub full of ice water for 12 minutes doesn’t really help your recovery process after a long run. It’s easier to lean toward agreement of those who say it’s a waste of time or that it hinders your ability to refuel on glycogen (you just got done with a long run, what’s your immediate need for glycogen anyway?!). It’s easier because cryotherapy HURTS!
I’ll give you the science of both sides of the argument, but first I’m going to tell you from personal experience that when I ice bath after a marathon or 15+ mile run, my legs feel 80% better than when I don’t. In fact, after my last two marathons, my body literally welcomed the icy water – it felt good.
After the Air Force Marathon I had a two-hour waiting period, so I found the next best thing until I could get back to the hotel for a bath: a pile of ice to lie on. A few of us ended up taking turns lying on the leg love pile. After the Cowtown Marathon I didn’t ice for about six hours – both time frames were just as effective.
Some friends and I have also opted for the pool route after a long run in the winter – sitting or standing in a cold pool for 10 or so minutes. The picture on the far right below is after a 20 miler in 35-degree weather (notice the hot cup of coffee between my friend and I). What can I say, misery loves company.
Yes, the water literally hurts. Your toes will freeze in place, your butt will feel like a frozen slab of meat (which I guess technically, it is). You will more than likely scream when you get it in – if you’re not a swearer, chances are you will be for the next 12 minutes.
I have to admit though, knowing that the ice bath is really a treat for my body is motivation enough to climb in. I get an adrenaline rush and sick pleasure of withstanding something so (voluntarily) obnoxious. It’s really not so bad after the first few minutes anyway.
I usually use two bags of ice in cold bathwater and fill the tub with enough water so that when I sit the water comes up to my hips and completely covers my legs. Aim for water 15-24 degrees Celsius.
Alright – so the science.
When you run your muscles develop micro-tears. Over a period of time, the damaged muscles will repair themselves by laying down new muscle fibers. If you continue to put this stress on your muscles then improvements in strength and size should be visible. For a weight lifter, muscles get bigger. In runners you see bigger hamstrings, quads and calves. However, in the acute stage, you may experience delayed onset muscular soreness (DOMS). You’ll know it if you have it – super sore and weak legs.
A little soreness is generally inherent while you’re building up your base miles – but it doesn’t have to be miserable. Here’s where the ice bath comes in.
Ice bath advocates (me included) swear that the ice bath is that the ice water constricts the blood vessels to flush out waste products like lactic acid, decreases metabolic activity, which reduces swelling and tissue breakdown. An overabundance of lactic acid can cause your muscles to function poorly and result in “tired,” heavy legs.
The icy water causes your blood vessels to tighten (flushing out those toxins) and drains the blood out of your legs. Remember on Titanic how everyone in the water was pasty white, as if the blood had been sucked out of them? In a sense, it had. So when you get out of the bath, your legs fill up with new blood that invigorate and drive oxygen to the muscles.
On the flip side, those who argue ice baths … never mind, I’m not going there – they are just wrong! Ok, ok I’ll be fair. RunnersWorld.com executive editor Mark Remy said in an interview that the ice bath is a joke.
“I still maintain that ice baths are an elaborate practical joke being played on runners: ‘Dude, you know what you should do after your run? (Snicker) Go sit in a tub full of ice water. (Snicker) No, seriously, it’ll be great.’ I’m not falling for it!”
That article was from 2009 – I’d bet a pair of running shoes he’s tried it by now and is singing to a different tune).
In the October 2012 issue of Runner’s World (p. 32), the author says ice baths hinder muscle refueling (glycogen). She cites a university of Montana study of participants who rode a bike for 90 minutes then intermittently soaked one leg in the ice bath while sipping a carb recovery drink.
Anyone else hear crickets? 1. We’re runners. 2. How many participants? 3. One leg?! Pansies. 4. While sipping a carb recovery drink … what kind? How much is a sip?
So I rest my case and now present you with some icy water survival tips:
- Wear a sweatshirt or blanket around upper body – it will keep you warmer than you think
- Do something to take your mind off the clock: read a book; eat you post-run snack; call a friend (careful, those shivers might send that phone to an icy death)
- Sing or yell – something about audibly “letting it” will get you from putting one foot in to the seating position
- Drink something hot
If you’re still not convinced either which way – try it once. You’ll be hooked and you can thank me when your legs are good as gold the next day.