To Ice Bath Or Not To Ice Bath: That Is The Cold Question

An ice bath is typically the act of a runner submerging themselves, usually still fully clothed almost immediately post run, into a bathtub full of ice and ice cold water. Yes, it's as miserable and as painful as it sounds.

September 4, 2015

We’ve all seen photos of the crazy people who participate in a polar bear plunge: typically some sort of charity fundraiser where people don their swimsuits in the middle of winter and jump into a hole cut in the ice of a frozen lake, pond, or river. As insane as it may be, the crazy act of jumping into ice cold water seems justified by the fact that a) it’s done for a good cause, and b) it usually only lasts a few seconds. It’s a bucket list item, something you do once in a lifetime just to say you’ve had the experience.

So it seems even crazier, if not almost sadistic, that so many runners subject themselves to ice baths on a regular basis.

An ice bath, incase you’ve never heard of it, is typically the act of a runner submerging themselves, usually still fully clothed almost immediately post run, into a bathtub full of ice and ice cold water.

Yes, it’s as miserable and as painful as it sounds. The first time I submerged my post long run legs into a bathtub full of water and ice cubes (and rubber duckies and toy boats, such is the life of a running mom), I thought for sure that I had lost my ever loving mind.

But the idea is that the ice bath will help promote recovery in your muscles faster, and prevent or at least subdue the onset of post run muscle soreness. In theory, the extreme cold is thought to constrict blood vessels (acting as light compression), flush waste products, and reduce swelling and tissue breakdown caused by running.

Note that I said “in theory”.

Experts go back and forth about the effectiveness of ice baths. While many tout the benefits of icing, others argue that many non elite athletes (i.e., us average Joes) do not work at high enough levels to warrant an ice bath. And what’s worse, recent studies have concluded that the ice baths may actually delay recovery time.

So what’s a runner to do?

As with many things in the world of running, results may vary by individual. Therefore, if you are interested in seeing if ice baths work for you…give it a try. But keep in mind that while ice baths may or may not be beneficial or even a placebo, they can most definitely be dangerous. So if you are going to try to give your running legs a polar plunge of their own, keep the following tips in mind:

1) Start Slow. This goes for both temperature AND time submerged. Most experts recommend a water temperature of 54 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal ice baths and 6-8 minutes of soaking…BUT that doesn’t mean you need to start there. Work your way up to those recommended numbers with shorter submersion times and warmer temperatures. Keep in mind that temperatures warmer than 60 degrees, but still relatively cool, can still be beneficial.

2) Limit exposure. No one wants frostbite or hypothermia, so listen carefully to your body. Now, in my opinion, nothing is comfortable about an ice bath. But you need to be aware of more than simply discomfort. If things start to go numb, especially extremities like toes, get out of the water. If shivering becomes uncontrollable, or you start to feel unwell, get out of the water. Limit time in the tub to a maximum of 10 minutes.

3) Listen to your body. Everyone has their own tolerance for cold, and yours might not be as low as the recommended 54 to 60 degrees. Further, the ice bath simply might not work for you, so don’t keep subjecting yourself to the painful and daunting ice baths if you don’t notice any benefits, or worse, notice delayed recovery or any other negative side effect.

4) Don’t say I didn’t warn you, there is nothing fun about ice baths. BUT, if they help you recover faster and become a stronger runner, then the 6 to 8 minutes of chilly discomfort might be well worth it.