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Should You Take Ice Baths?

June 14th, 2013

Many coaches and athletes believe that ice baths can help your body recover from strenuous exercise, like a long run or a heavy sprint session. The idea is that the intensity of the cold water on your legs helps flush out lactic acid and other toxins, and the bath approach is able to treat a large area of muscle at once. Blood flow to your muscles also increases post-ice, which means more oxygenated blood to help your body recover more quickly.

Creating an ice bath is pretty darn simple: just fill a tub about halfway with cold water and then empty three bags of ice into it. This should bring the water to between 54 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s good to confirm the water temperature with a thermometer, and to start on the high side of this temperature range for your first few times in.

The hardest part is often convincing yourself to actually get in. Sit in the tub so that your legs are fully submerged, and grit your teeth until your time is up. Five to eight minutes should be plenty of time (and, sorry, might feel like a mini-eternity).

So would your training and performance benefit from adding in an ice bath routine? It depends. Below are some suggestions for different runner profiles.

If you log high mileage with lots of long runs

If you’re lacing up nearly every day for high mileage training, then ice baths could enhance your recovery and training. Many distance athletes will take an icy plunge for 5-15 minutes following their two longest runs of the week.

If you log low mileage with lots of sprint work

An ice bath could also benefit your training if you focus primarily on speedwork, with many short but intense workouts each week. Try starting with just one ice bath each week, following your most intense workout, and observe how your body responds.

If you log moderate mileage with little to no speedwork

If your weekly mileage is fairly conservative, and you rarely include a speed work session, then enduring ice baths might not have much of an impact on your training. If you want to take the plunge just to see what it’s all about, try it after your most difficult run of the week.

If you want some of the benefits of ice baths, but aren’t ready to commit to a half-body dip in frigid water, try starting with an ice massage. Fill a dozen small paper cups with water and freeze them. After a workout, grab a cup and peel back enough of the paper that you can hold the cup and massage your muscles. Massage muscles for 10-15 minutes.

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