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The Ice Bath: Sexy Fad or Scientific Fact?

Posted by Filed Under: Science and Research

After a hot and sweaty run, the prospect of chilled liquid appeals to many runners. Water, a sports drink, maybe even a beer might do nicely to quench the body’s desires. But, the eyes widen when this cool cocktail is served up in the form of floating ice cubes in a bath tub sans purple toothpick umbrella. You can wear a warm hat, drink hot tea, and throw in all the rubber ducks you like, but I don’t know many who don’t hesitate even a little bit before taking this glacial plunge.[ad#inPost-Big]

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For years the practice of the ice bath has been touted as an effective way to reduce pain and inflammation after a hard workout, motivating athletes to sit, teeth chattering, while the cold does its work. The basic theory is that the low temperature constricts the blood vessels in your legs, reducing the swelling. When you break free from the frigid waters and begin to warm your body up again, the blood delivers fresh oxygen to the muscle cells to help them repair the damage done by your 20-mile run straight up the sides of Kilimanjaro.

And yet, a study reported in the June 2007 edition of the British Journal of Sports Medicine contradicts the idea that this practice is beneficial to an athlete’s recovery. Scientists at the University of Melbourne and Sports Physicians ACT in Australia report that there was no difference between those who soaked in a tepid bath and those who got stuck with the cold treatment, except where pain was concerned. Not only was there a difference in one of the pain parameters examined, but this discrepancy counters the popular theory: in this study, those who took the ice bath reported more pain.

However, as the sensation of pain seems a bit subjective to me, and since there were no other differences, I’ll wait for more evidence before cutting out the icy treatment. So far it seems to mean I’m able to walk pain-free the next day.

About Nora

I am a native Californian currently settled and running my way bit by bit around the South East of England. Besides running, my training activities include biking, hiking, swimming, yoga, and tap dancing in place while in line at the grocery store. I am addicted to photography and run most races with my camera in hand, just in case.



19 Comments
  1. Jonn on August 22nd at 7:48 am

    I have used the ice bath, for several years, after my long runs and races and I will swear by them. They cut my pain and recovery time significantly.

  2. JoLynn Braley on August 22nd at 1:09 pm

    Wow, this reminds me of the “polar bear club”. I’m into paced walking so I don’t have pain after working out like you get from running, so I’ve never had use for an ice bath.

    I know someone who is an avid runner, I’ll recommend your blog to him. ;)

  3. Amanda on August 22nd at 3:03 pm

    I can do the cold shower…but can’t do the ice bath. Strange how I can tolerate the pain of running, but not the pain of being submerged in ice.

  4. Jes on August 22nd at 5:31 pm

    I just did my first ice bath this evening, and I am hoping it will work. How cold does the water have to actually be? I’m sure I could have put in more ice, but I thought I’d work up to it.

  5. Jon (was) in Michigan on August 22nd at 9:13 pm

    Mmmmmm. Iiiiice baaaaath! :)

    I have done many of these and they definately feel good after a hot long run. Not so very nice in the winter, but for me it seemed to help anyway.

    How cold does it need to be? These days I am just using the cold water (no ice) as its inconvenient to pick up the ice now. That temperature still seems to be good (~55 F). Although I miss the klink-klink sound of the ice rattling around in the tub.

    A few tips:
    1) Get in the tub and put a little warm water (an inch or two) in the tub first, to get acclimated to the water.

    2) Add just cold water to the warm water to slowly bring the level of the water up and the temperature down. Its much less of a shock than trying to jump into a tub of ice water.

    3) When the tub is full, throw in the ice. How much? I used 14 pounds (2 7 pound bags). Your mileage may vary.

    4) I wore neoprene dive booties because my toes got really cold, so you might look for something similar.

    5) Bring a timer and get out after 10 minutes. That’s plenty of time.

    6) Screaming is optional. ;)

  6. Jeanne on August 22nd at 9:33 pm

    The way you describe it jon, it’s kind of like the opposite of cooking frogs!

    I was with you right up until neoprene booties. Sometimes a picture IS worth a thousand words.
    :)

  7. Nora on August 23rd at 4:49 am

    Neoprene booties. What a great idea! I usually sit there with my warm hat and hot tea, trying to visualize I’m swimming in a cold lake on a sunny day. I’ve definitely done some cold water only baths as we haven’t had any ice. The temperature of the water in this study was around 5 degrees C. But, I’ve heard anywhere from 10-15 degrees C.

  8. Sarah on August 27th at 3:16 pm

    Add a warm, wet towel around your shoulders–it really helps! I like to run a cool bath, get it with the warm towel around my shoulders (just dipped in hot water and wrung out), then start adding in the bucket of ice that is conveniently waiting by my tub. I sit in it as long as I can, then blast out of there! I have also been known to stand in a cold pool for hours after a marathon, enjoying the water and the relaxation–that worked pretty well too!

  9. Jessica Chung on September 21st at 8:45 pm

    I just had one yesterday, my first one. It helped numb the pain for about 3 hr and made me very sleepy. I think it’s the sleep that aids in your recovery. Anyways I recommend it. It’ not hard to bear at all, compared to natural labor it’s nothing.

  10. Paul on October 13th at 3:33 pm

    Just took my 3rd ice bath. I read that 54 to 60 degrees F is ideal. Where I live that is the temperature of the cold water temperature straight from the tap. Hence, no need for ice.

    I’m a handball player and have found the effects to be excellent. I also feel the effects can last for days. I am skeptical of “scientific” studies trying to disprove the benefits of cold water treatments. My body doesn’t lie….this works.

    I get in an empty tub and start to fill it with cold water. Of course it is somewhat uncomfortable, but soon the lower extremities go numb and you get used to it.

    8 to 10 minutes is fine for me. Can’t wait to do it again after my next heavy workout. Perhaps one day I’ll have the nerve to immerse my entire body…I’m guessing it would also be beneficial to my arms, upper back and neck.

  11. danny on June 29th at 8:09 am

    cant you just use a whole bunch of icy-hots, and it’ll be the same thing?

  12. The Miraculous Healing Powers of the Ice Bath on June 30th at 6:00 am

    […] the scientific research indicates ice baths are of dubious benefit to a runner, psychologically they are amazing. And for me, there seems to be a real physical […]

  13. Hans on August 24th at 3:44 am

    Used it several times.

    My advice: Wear al thermo/craft shirt during the tubbing!

  14. Inflaming Opinions | Running Is Funny on September 29th at 8:51 am

    […] have no immune system complications, this makes some sense and may help explain the findings of the British Journal of Sports Medicine about ice baths. Participants who soaked in ice baths after activity reported more pain than those […]

  15. TryingAgain on October 24th at 4:16 am

    Well I tried my first ice bath today. In an effort to get rid of the soreness and tightness in my calves. Plus to see the effect it would have on the shin splints I maybe developing. The ice bath wasnt so bad. I survived. Next time I think I need more ice. Havent notice the difference yet but I’ll wait a few hours and see what happens.

  16. TryingAgain on October 25th at 5:42 pm

    Ok so I did another ice bath about 20mins ago. I used a 16 pound bag of ice. Yes it was cold then my first ice bath but I still think I need more ice or maybe I’m using to much ice. Any advice……

  17. Jon (was) in Michigan on October 26th at 4:26 am

    If it felt cold, then you probably have plenty of ice. You just want enough ice to cool down the muscles a bit.

    Jon (was) in Michigans last blog post..Another cold run

  18. Matt on April 25th at 4:08 pm

    I really don’t care whether or not they scientically do anything.  They feel really good.  After a few minutes, I feel like I could sleep in that tub. 

  19. Nathan Gardner on July 18th at 1:55 pm

    Well I am going to boot camp in 2 weeks and I wanted a leg up on the training. So I started running 2-5 miles a day. I did it twice and I was so fucking sore for 4 days. Than I did it and took an ice bath. Next day I was ready to go again. So for me the ice bath really worked. I got a good method too. Take two empty soda 2 liter bottles and fill them 3/4 full of water and than throw um in the freezer and use those with the coldest water you got. And throw maybe 2-3 trays of ice. Works awesoome. I try to stay in there for 10-20 minutes with 2 cups of tea and a good magazine. Something with chicks cause at this point your man-parts hate you.

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