Or, how to properly take an ice bath.
I know I’ve talked about how much I adore baths. Give me a big glass of wine and a deep tub any day and I am instantly in a better mood. So, why, you might ask, would I ever throw in such a frigid alternative to something that evokes such good thoughts? Because, while it may be uncomfortable for a few minutes, it really provides great benefits. I began ice baths last year during my half marathon training, again during the hooping the half marathon training, now while I’m training for more races, and I swear by them. Push your body and muscles to the brink of exhaustion, take an ice bath, and by the time you’re ready for another long run the next week, your legs will be good as new! I usually notice that “new legs” feeling within about 5 days.
How does it work? The ice water shocks your muscles and creates teeny-tiny tears in your muscles. This triggers a response in your body to immediately begin repairing this large area. Sometimes you have to break something down in order to build it back up. It works quicker than if you’re just getting soreness and fatigue and try to “rest” it out on your own and hope you feel better in a couple weeks. You actually jumpstart your body’s response to help repair, restore, and rebuild your muscles. It also constricts the blood vessels and your body’s natural response to cold is to shunt the blood to your core and away from your extremities. So once you take that hot shower afterwards, it opens up the blood vessels and allows fresh oxygenated blood to rush back in and and help repair your body, as well as flush out the lactic acid. You will have less downtime in training and likely less injury. Additionally, the ice bath works better than just “icing” a muscle. Ice combined with water is actually colder than ice alone, for example adding a little bit of water to an ice pack when icing a smaller area.
Ice Bath Tips
1. Apparel: After a long workout when your legs feel sluggish or sore, don a pair of compression tights and compression top. I actually use an old spandex dance unitard, and put a long-sleeve compression top over it. I keep on my running socks, then put a pair of very thick socks over them and make sure they come up over the bottom of my tights, so no/less water seeps into the tights. A-ha! You thought I meant ice bath in your birthday suit! I may be crazy, but not THAT crazy. You should really protect yourself from direct exposure to the ice. Believe me, you’ll be cold enough with all of these clothes on.
2. Ice: For your first ice bath, I recommend starting with the ice from your freezer. Which may be around 5 lbs. Eventually over time you can work up to a 7-10 lbs bag from the store, then adding the freezer ice to the store bought bags, getting up to 15 lbs. Finally, the brave go up to 20 lbs or more. This weekend, I bought three 7 lbs bags for a grand total of 21 lbs.
3. Timing: First of all I recommend taking a kitchen timer with you to watch the time count backwards. The first ice bath you take, you will probably only want to start with about 7-10 mins. Eventually you will work up to about 15 mins, and for those really tough days, you can go up to 20+ mins. However, please be careful in going longer than 10-15 mins, you don’t want to get hyperthermia or frost bite, which can set in quickly. Get out before you start getting any numbness.
4. Setting up the Bath: Pull up the drain before starting. When you place the ice in to the bath, try to dump it closer to the drain. I do not recommend spreading out the ice across the entire tub. You want to have the majority of the ice where your legs are. Believe me, if you sit on a piece of ice, it will freeze to your butt and won’t move, it will be the only piece that will not melt, and you DO NOT want to reach your hand down in there to move it. I try to concentrate the ice where my calves are, the smaller parts of my body that are less likely to trap ice under it.
5. Taking the Bath: Grab a magazine or your favorite book. I usually like to also keep something to drink nearby as I’m usually still rehydrating after a long run. Lower yourself into the bath on top of the ice. Settle yourself down into the ice if you’d like, moving your legs to sink deeper and push the ice to the sides so it will float up quicker and easier. Then turn on the bath water. Start with the water in the middle (not hot, not cold) position and move over to cold as much as you can stand it. Do not make the water warmer than the middle position, because you might as well just not take an ice bath at all. Go big or go home! Allow the water to fill up to the point it covers your legs, and your hips if they’re also troublesome. Try to sit upright, instead of leaning back, no need to get colder than necessary.
6. Breathing and Distractions: The water will get REALLY cold! Which means that it will be an initial shock to your body. You have to remember to BREATHE! Take very slow deep breaths. If you allow yourself to gasp for air from the shock, you will get lightheaded quickly, not something you want in a bathtub filling with water. Feel free to let out a few screams as you exhale (I do!) or use any Lamaze techniques you know. That initial shock only lasts about 3-5 minutes as the ice melts. By 5 mins, the ice has melted and it is much more bearable. Read your book or magazine or whatever you can to keep yourself distracted. The time will pass quickly.
7. The Best Part: Once your ice bath is over, drain the water and remove your cold, wet clothes. Now you can take a hot shower for as long as you want. It will feel amazing! Then in a few days your legs will feel renewed.
I always thought the idea of an ice bath was crazy. Until I tried them. You can think I’m crazy, but I have had the best results from them and will continue take them. Besides what is 20 minutes compared to not losing any time in training, and possibly shaving off a few minutes at the finish line! And being able to walk the next day!