Why do runners sit in ice baths?
It isn’t a pleasant experience, teeth chattering away, legs going numb, and who knows what’s happening to your private parts! You do all this hard training and then decide to do something that’s 10 times worse, sit in a bath of COLD WATER & ice. Why
Well, the belief is that it’ll help your MUSCLES recover. It is the recovery from training that ALLOWS THE BODY TO ADAPT AND THEREFORE IMPROVE. When we train, we create a stimulus that stresses the body, which causes a state of fatigue and a temporary reduction in performance. We then get the recovery phase where the body gets to adapt to the training and that’s followed by some super-compensation, where the body has improved due to the training stimulus. So, THE THEORY is that if you can improve the recovery phase, then you’ll get fitter faster. If you feel better after one, you’ll be able to train again much sooner, and who doesn’t love training!!
For a long time, ice baths were seen as the way to go. There was something noble about forcing yourself into a giant bath filled with ice cold water and since evidence suggests that athletes feel better after having sat in an ice bath, they became popular. However, it seems as though the ice will not help you adapt to training.
What does the science say?
When we train, OUR MUSCLE CELLS DEVELOP MICRO DAMAGE AND GET INFLAMED. This inflammation process is crucial as it helps the repair and adaptation process - the muscles rebuild stronger. However, ice will blunt that inflammation process and, if we do that, then it’s likely to slow down the training effects! This is the same reason why you want to avoid ibuprofen or anti inflammatory drugs after a training session, as all you’re doing is negating the affects of the session itself.
In recent years, there has also been a rise in the use of cryotherapy chambers. These are chambers that you step into and your body is be subjected to temperatures of -166°F (-100 °C). Again research is and isn’t favourable. One study focussing on trial runners reported that, “a unique session of whole-body cryotherapy performed immediately after exercise enhanced muscular recovery by restricting the inflammatory process.” So whilst it did help recovery, it isn’t going to help adaptations to training. Dr Joseph Costello, from Portsmouth University's Department of Sport and Exercise Science, says: “we did an exhaustive research of the literature and found only four studies that assessed the effects of this treatment, which is amazing when you consider that sports teams are investing in it.”
"That's not to say it couldn't work, but there's no good evidence that it does."
When is it good to use ice?
Ice baths can be really useful, especially in a competition setting or after a big race, when the gains from the race aren’t as important as the feel-good factor of the recovery. That’s why you’ll see them used at big international competitions, especially if the athlete has to go through rounds of races. There, the emphasis is on recovering and feeling better for the next race, not for seeing gains for training!
Ice can also be a very useful as a recovery tool from injury, especially to help reduce the pain that is associated with an injury! When you injure yourself, superficial tissues get inflamed, red, hot and swollen. The natural reaction to this in inflammation - this is a normal, healthy and natural process.
Using Ice is a mild, drug free way of dulling that pain.
And from my experience, I use cool water of some form, if my legs are a little sore. Getting into the sea or just turning the cold on the shower head and running it up and down my legs can be a pleasant experience. As long as the temperature isn’t too cold then the cooling affect can be beneficial on the legs, but you’re still allowing the inflammation to occur. After a marathon, or a big event, cooling the legs down with some ice can really help the recovery process, if you’re brave enough!
A better use of your time would be too work on an optimal nutrition strategy for after training, which delivers all the necessary nutrients and vitamins into your system. Some light stretching after a run can just help realign those muscle fibres. This is a much better use of your limited time after training. If you have a spare 15-minutes during the day, try a power nap as sleep really is the ultimate recover tool. Your body is fantastic at naturally doing the recovery process, as long as you give it chance to do that.