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Ice Baths The Good The Bad The Ugly

Ice baths - The good, the bad, and the ugly

By Jeff Rondina Team Strength Runner Athlete


As always, I am not a medical professional (although I have recently completed an EMT course) and everything here is based on my own experience or research. You should do your own as well.


Ice baths are controversial. Studies have been done extensively and they best they have come up with is a resounding maybe. Some athletes swear by them, other athletes avoid them at all costs, and most fall in that grey area of why would you do it to yourself. I have been ice bathing for a couple years ago, but only very intermittently because getting in a tub of ice cold water sucks. That is probably the one area all athletes can agree on.I first heard of ice baths about two years ago. I was reading an athlete’s blog and saw it mentioned. First thought was of course, why would you do that to yourself? Second thought was, what’s this whole ice bath thing about? So I did a little internet searching and found the 3 camps of ice bath thought.  Let me give a quick synopsis of each camp.


#1. Ice baths are the greatest ever. This camp has staunch supporters who will defend the ice bath to the death. They will insist it fixes everything. It will strengthen the constitution, heal your sore muscles over night, and make you run twice as fast. I am of course being facetious.


#2.Ice baths are the worst. They will tell you how the cold water slows down fluid movement thereby lengthening healing time, it weakens your immune system, and a host of other ill effects. 

#3. Ice baths are neither bad nor good. These knowledgeable people will tell you about how the science behind the ice bath is vague and there are no proven benefits or negative effects.


So which camp is right, or the closest to being right? All three are right. When it comes to ice baths, there is no straight answer. For some it works, for some it doesn’t, and no one knows why.  The idea behind it is that after intense physical activity, the ice bath will help the muscles recover faster. The cold temperature causes vasoconstriction, which according to some, will help get rid of lactic acid buildup, cause the blood to leave the extremities, and reduce swelling. The blood then rushes back to the muscles when the body warms back up, bringing healing nutrients, and flushing out the toxins. Of course none of this has been proven. The flip side of the coin is that the inflammation is your body’s natural response to muscle damage and that is necessary for healing. By using ice, you are slowing the healing process down. Another negative effect is the sudden immersion in cold water can shock your body leading in worst case scenarios to breathing problems. That’s very worst case and unlikely to happen.


In my personal experience, ice baths help me. I only use them after long runs/races or after a very intense leg workout. They may help for the upper body as well but it’s hard enough to sit waist deep in ice water as it is. I only use them very occasionally, mostly because I don’t like buying that much ice. But when I do utilize an ice bath for recovery, I notice my legs are not as sore the following day. I have done a few back to back races on a Saturday and Sunday and think that Saturday night’s ice bath is one of the only reasons I could get back out there the next day. The most notable was my first ultra marathon, a very technical and steep 50k, followed the next day by a gnarly 12 mile trail race of which about a 1/2 mile of it was flat. I don’t recommend doing that. But I did my ice bath, as well as foam rolling, massage, and plenty of water, protein, and amino acids for recovery and was able to run the next day.


Ice Bath Recipe1 tub filled 3/4 with cold water20-30lbs of ice depending on starting water temp.Open bags of ice and dump into tub. While mustering all of your courage, get into the tub*. Sit for 12-15 minutes. Quicklyexit the water, and towel dry off. If you prefer to get comfortable quicker, take a hot shower immediately afterwards**.*Optional, yell your favorite curse word as you get in.**Contrast baths, one hot, one cold are another form and just as hotly contested.


If you find yourself intrigued and want to try this out for yourself, I have a few tips and tricks: 


1. The ideal water temperature is supposedly between 52-58 degrees. I used to have a thermometer but now I just estimate. And believe me, that 6 degree difference can feel huge. 

2. Bring a distraction. It’s far easier to sit in a cold bath while reading a book than just staring at the clock.

3. If you position yourself so your toes are sticking out of the water, it can make it suck that much less. Cold toes suck.

4. Even if you take a hot shower immediately after, you won’t be warm for awhile. Be prepared to shiver for longer than you’d like.

5. If you have a significant other, they most likely will not be willing to share body heat. No one likes cuddling with a Popsicle.There you have it. There are many more articles out there about this, and you can see for yourself the controversy surrounding it, but everybody is different. Give it a shot after your next long run, maybe it will help. And remember to hydrate.