Almost every runner has wondered at some point: Should I take an ice bath? To some it sounds uncomfortable and to others it sounds like relief. Whether you regularly submerge your legs in freezing water or are simply curious about whether or not you should, we’ve rounded up the research behind the storied recovery routine and hope it helps you make a decision once and for all.
If you’ve thought about using ice baths to aid your recovery, it is important to know what the research surrounding them says. To put it bluntly: There isn’t evidence they actually work. However, there also isn’t evidence that they have a negative impact, either, which makes things a bit murky.
“There is no significant difference between runners that use an ice bath versus an active recovery approach (meaning light-intensity movement such as walking, light swimming or biking),” shares Nicole Gainacopulos, owner of Momentum of Milwaukee. “As a coach, some of my athletes swear by their ice bath after a long run. I advise them that while there is no physiological benefit to the ice bath, in moderation it shouldn’t be harmful to their training or recovery.”
In fact, a study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) found ice baths of up to 20 minutes immediately after exercise had no negative effect on an athlete’s overall performance (and long-term recovery was no different than that of athletes who didn’t use ice baths at all). Basically, ice baths don’t reduce inflammation, aiding in our recovery as once thought.
However, this doesn’t mean you need to eliminate ice baths from your routine completely, especially if you enjoy them. In fact one study from the Queensland Academy of Sport, Brisbane found that immersing the body in cold water after resistance work “allows athletes to complete more work during subsequent training sessions.” So, should you decide to keep them as a part of your recovery, is there a right or wrong way to ice bath? The process is actually quite simple.
Here is how to take an ice bath: Fill the tub with some cold water and add ice. Voilà. Marc Pelerin, a middle school cross country and track coach, as well as an online running coach at TrainwithMarc.com, recommends using more than one bag of ice at a time (aim for a lot of ice floating as your legs are submerged).
“Ice baths work really well after a longer, harder workout,” Pelerin says. “I’ve also taken ice baths in freezing cold streams after runs. You’ll start to see benefits after as little as 4–5 minutes, but I wouldn’t stay in any longer than 8–10 minutes, one or two times per week.”
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Gainacopulos advises saving ice baths for after a particularly challenging long run or speed workout, all at the athlete’s discretion as there is no proven benefit. Afterward you should warm up with a warm shower and — this next part is very important! — never stretch cold muscles.
If you swear by ice baths, the good news is they aren’t going to negatively impact you. Gainacopulos acknowledges that the recovery method definitely has a placebo effect as she has seen it with her athletes firsthand.
We want to know: Do you take ice baths and notice a positive impact on your recovery? Share your opinion on this polarizing practice in the comments.