Ice Baths: A (Somewhat) Necessary Evil

>> Wednesday, March 10, 2010

I mentioned something the other day about how gorgeous the weather has been here in Upstate NY. Sunny. 50 degrees. Yet, we still have (or this weekend we had) a foot of snow in the backyard. I made good use of the stuff after my 11-miler on Sunday. That's right -- I made the snow my very own outdoor ice bath. (Minus the bath part.)

How is literally freezing your ass off helpful to your running? Well, for one thing -- it dramatically reduces muscle soreness. When you've finished a hard, long workout (like my 20-milers during marathon training), your muscles are screaming and inflamed. Icing soothes and protects them from further damage (jumping into a hot tub -- though insanely wonderful -- will just make the inflammation worse). It allows your blood vessels to constrict and ultimately return to their normal state much faster than if you just take a hot shower.

Bottom line: You feel better the next day.


If you don't have a patch of the frosty stuff at your disposal, you can draw your own ice bath -- indoors. Just fill your bathtub with about half a foot of cold water (enough to submerge just your lower half), add some ice cubes (maybe a couple trays -- though, the cold water should work just fine -- you want the temperature to be between 50 and 60 degrees F). Then, if it's your first bath, sit in there for about 5 minutes. It's difficult at first -- painful, even. But if you find it's something that works for you, work your way up to 10 minutes.

Stephen's a champ with ice baths. I am not. So, though I write this post to share with you all, I assure you: Ice baths aren't for everyone. But when you're done, your legs feel like they've taken a week-long vacation in the Tropics. Not the heat part, just the restful, exotic-location part.


So. Do you feel ready to try it? Seriously, it's COLD. And you won't really want to go inside those mean waters when you realize how cold it actually is. Here are some tips. Some things we do to make the whole process less agonizing (mentally and physically).
  • We make a cup of tea or hot cocoa. Drinking something warm tends to help. Takes off the edge.
  • We dress warmly on top -- usually a couple sweaters -- and also for some odd reason, I always wear socks. Makes my feet feel slightly less cold? Might all be in my mind. I also wear running tights. No romance, here. This is a fully-clothed bath, for sure.
  • We set a timer. That way, we're not obsessively watching the clock. Hearing each frigid second tick by.
  • We take turns. When you're done with the ice bath, it's exceedingly difficult to get out of the tub. Your legs are very cold. So, we help each other out, quite literally.
  • We play 20 questions. Or another game of sorts. Something to keep our minds off the fact that our lower half is almost -- but by no means completely -- numb.
OK. It really isn't the most awful thing ever. But, it's not the most pleasant. I'm not going to lie. So, if you don't like it after the first try -- I encourage you to try again. Because you'll feel so much better the next day. Really. I'm a baby about it, but there are some runs that just require an ice bath. And it's so worth the temporary discomfort.

Also note: If your bottom half starts to go completely numb at any point during this process (likely not to happen), that's not a good thing. That means the bath is TOO cold, and it can damage your muscles. So get yourself a thermometer and check it out (keeping in mind your steamy body will cause the water temps to rise when you enter the bath).

Again, the temperature should be somewhere between 50 and 60 degrees F. You don't gain anything from a colder bath. And feel free to take a warm shower half and hour to an hour after your trip to the Arctic.

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