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Ice Bath 101: 8 Tips to Survive a Cold Soak

October 11, 2012

Chattering teeth. Goosebumps. Chills. Sound appealing? What if I added “less sore,” “faster recovery” and “injury prevention” to that list? Interested? During every marathon training season, ice baths become part of my training regimen after runs longer than 16 miles. I’ve posted pictures and comments on Twitter and Facebook in the last few months about this infamous – and sometimes feared – ritual. Many of you have written to me with questions about ice baths: “How do you do it?” “How can you stand it?” “I want to take an ice bath but I just can’t bring myself to do it. Any advice?” I thought I would share with you my step-by-step process for perfecting the art of the ice bath and how to stay distracted from how cold you feel. Just like running, taking an ice bath is often harder mentally than it is physically.

But first, what is the science behind ice baths? There are varying opinions out there. Many believe they are the go-to way to speed recovery and help prevent inflamation and soreness. According to Runner’s World, ice baths (or cold-water immersion) can help counteract the risks of injury and stress on the body that is caused by longer training runs. They help constrict blood vessels and decrease metabolic activity, reducing swelling and tissue breakdown after a hard effort. Additionally, they are said to help flush harmful debris from your muscles, speed circulation and jump-start the healing process. On the other hand, there are studies that show mixed results. Earlier this year, Competitor Magazine reported on a 2007 study showing that while “a 50-degree F soak after a hard 90-minute run showed that runners felt less sore in the days after, the ice baths didn’t lower the runners’ levels of creatine kinase, a marker of exercise-induced muscle damage.” My advice would be to limit ice baths to only your longest runs (18+ miles) during the peak mileage period of your training season, when you really begin to feel physically beat up.

Try These 8 Tips to Perfect the Art of Taking an Ice Bath

  1. Buy several pounds of ice (I like to use 40 pounds – 4 10-pound bags). Set them by your tub, cutting open the tops so that they are ready to be easily dumped into the bathtub.
  2. Fill your bathtub with cold water (as cold as your faucet will go). There should be enough water in the tub to cover the tops of your thighs once you get in.
  3. Dress for success. I like to wear tight-fitting shorts, like lululemon’s Run Shorty Shorts or a pair of triathlon shorts to soak in, but getting in with any running shorts works too. Be sure to put on a sweatshirt or jacket to keep your torso and arms warm. Make sure it’s a jacket or sweatshirt you don’t mind getting wet, as the bottom of it may get damp from the bath.
  4. Get into the tub with the cold water only. Again, make sure it is covering your thighs and feet. I find it is easier to get into cold water than ice cold water. It might take your breath away for a moment, but you’ll get used to it.
  5. One by one, dump each bag of ice into the water with you. It will begin to get much colder. Experts say the water should be between 50 and 60 degrees F, but cold water that is warmer than that can still have positive effects. A kitchen or meat thermometer is useful for checking the water temperature. According to Runner’s World, “the most important factor in the success of an ice bath is consistent immersion over time, not the temperature.
  6. Stay in the tub with the ice for 8-15 minutes. I typically stay in for 15 minutes. You’ll notice that your toes are likely to be the most sensitive of all the parts you have submerged. They get a little tingly/stingy by the end of your bath.
  7. Distract yourself. The best way to make the time go by quickly and not think about how cold you are is by taking your mind away from the ice. I have a waterproof case for my iPhone and find that tweeting, checking email and being on Facebook makes the time fly by. I’ve also read my kindle, talked on the phone with my mom and even eaten a sandwich while ice-bathing in the past. If you’re someone who gets really chilled, consider sipping on a cup of tea while in the ice bath to warm you up a little.
  8. After your ice bath, bring your body temperature back down slowly. It is tempting to rush to take a hot shower (I’ve certainly been guilty of doing that many times). However, according to Andy Schmitz, a sport performance manager for USA Triathlon and elite coach for the world triathlon championship events and the Olympics, he says that the residual cooling effect and gradual warming are ideal. He suggests initial warming options of a sweatshirt, blanket and/or warm drink. I often hop right into my bed and get under the covers for 10 minutes, or during the summer, when it is really hot, I’ll go stand outside for several minutes where it’s nice and toasty. However, Coach Schmitz does recommend taking the shower if you are unable to warm yourself.

So, who’s ready for a cold swim? Milkshake anyone?

Do you regularly take ice baths after high-mileage long runs? What tips would you add? If you’ve never taken an ice bath, what other strategies do you use to speed recovery after long runs?

Comments

Dacia
Reply

I love ice baths after my long runs! But I am totally guilty of taking a warm shower after. Usually because I am still a sweaty mess from my run and want to get cleaned up. Now I know better. Thanks!

rUnladylike
Reply

I’m guilty of it too. I have such a hard time getting warm after that I just want to run to the shower :)

Jay S.
Reply

Excellent post! I love ice baths. I used to fear them, but man my legs rebound much better with them.

rUnladylike
Reply

Thanks for sharing Alex. Important information we should all have visibility to and take into account.

Jennifer (@RunLovelyOne)
Reply

Sorry, but I’ll be hammering your blog with my comments as I am FINALLY to my own race day (nearly) and have become more centered again…time to catch up!

You know I tried an ice bath once, in fact I used to ice often. I just don’t see a huge difference but I’ve only done 13 miles as my longest. We’ll see if this is something that might help later with longer runs. :)

Jack
Reply

Thanks for the tips, gonna go try this now! But i’m using only two bags of ice!

chloe
Reply

Im a sprint hurdler, and i like to take ice baths after really exhausting practices. Half way through the season all my sores start to show up (shin splints, knee issues, sore ankles). Ive noticed that a quick 7-10 minute ice soak really helps keep the owies away and my body doesnt feel so exhausted!

Sydney
Reply

How soon after a hard run should u take the ice bath. Is it ok to wait a few hours?

rUnladylike
Reply

Hi Sydney! Ideally you would take your ice bath as soon after your run as possible. While I still think the ice could have a positive effect after a few hours, it would be best to do it right when you get home from your run. At least that is what I have always tried to do. Best of luck to you!

Sarah
Reply

Had my first ice dip today as i completed my first half marathon and was sore, stayed in for 15 minutes. It was so oozing, felt so relaxed. If you can control your mind, you won’t have any problems with the water being so cold.

100th Post! | Run Doodle Run
Reply

[…] Want to give this form of torture therapy a try? Here are some good jumping off points: 8 Ice Bath Dos and Don’ts Ask the Experts: Are Ice Baths Beneficial? Do Ice Baths Reduce Muscle Soreness? Sport and Recovery: End of the Ice Bath Age? Ice Baths 101: 9 Tips to Survive an Ice Bath […]

Alexis
Reply

My daughter was told to have an ice bath after her training yesterday. Few people had info on how to do. This information is great. She did a few things that could improve her taking one next time. Thanks for this well informed piece. Cheers.

rUnladylike
Reply

I’m so glad this was helpful, Alexis! Good to hear she survived her first cold dip :)

jessica
Reply

tried my first ice bath today and had a weird reaction…the stretchmarks on my outer butt and thighs swelled up and itched like crazy when i got out…i nearly scratched myself to bleeding…did i do something wrong…has this ever happened to anyone else…

rUnladylike
Reply

I’m sorry to hear that, Jessica. That has never happened to me. I have never heard that before, but maybe others can weigh in with their experience.

austin
Reply

cold allergy…look it up

rUnladylike
Reply

Yikes. That does not look pleasant :( I have never experienced this and don’t know anyone who has. I hope you haven’t suffered from this!

Danny
Reply

Hi, thanks for the tips, how do you do your stretching after the run?? Do you ice bath then stretch? Do before the bath or not at all?

rUnladylike
Reply

Hi Danny,
I do my stretching first since I have to drive all the way home from my long runs before I can do my ice bath and wouldn’t want to get in the car without stretching :) Glad the tips are helpful. Good luck!

Gin
Reply

I just sat down in front of my computer, plunged my feet into an ice bath after having to count to three twice to screw up the courage and promptly typed in “How long does it take for your feet to get used to an ice bath?” I am doing the ice bath to help control plantar faciitus.

Read your piece and the comments and am five minutes in and I am doing OK. Prob b/c my feet are numb! Thanks for the distraction and happy trails.

Melissa
Reply

@gin did the same thing (countdown and googling to see how long)! Thanks Jesica for the information – definitely helped me out today!

Lexabelle
Reply

I’m not a runner, I’m a ballet dancer, but a lot on this blog works for me, too! I actually started taking freezing baths when I was twelve (I’m fourteen now) because my seventh-grade vanity had read that it was good for beauty…started adding more ice a few months ago for better dance performance. Don’t think I could ever add as much ice as you are in the pics!

I remember my first freezing bath, I was completely uninformed—filled the bathtub with cold water and a pot of ice from the fridge, got in like a regular bath. Ended up draining the tub and putting. On the hot water, lol!

Jonathan
Reply

Sat in an ice bath in the UK right now reading this blog. It’s got great tips and it’s distracting me from the perishing cold!!

Kelly
Reply

I have found great benefits from ice baths, and pretty much do them as this post says. One thing i would add is a hot bowl of oats while bathing, but, as stated-anything to keep the mind occupied! I will usually move my legs around a bit also, after you have been in there a few minutes, you tend to acclimate, but, moving around brings the suck factor right back!

Claire
Reply

Why do you wear shorts???

rUnladylike
Reply

Hi Claire. Yes, I wear shorts in the ice bath. Usually just the shorts I ran in but I like to make sure they are tight-fitting to the body. Sometimes I’ll throw on a pair of triathlon shorts for my ice bath. I suppose they make my lady parts feel a little shielded from the chilly water. Perhaps that is just a mental thing, but it seems to work :)

Ajenae
Reply

I just did my first ice bath today reading your tips and I’m proud of myself! It was very successful thank you (:

rUnladylike
Reply

Congrats!!! Glad you were able to do it and that these tips were helpful. Thanks for finding me and stopping by runladylike.com :) Happy running!

RunEatRepeat
Reply

I do ice baths after long races and totally feel the difference! I hate it, but know it’s good for me :)

Carl
Reply

In the summer I will fill the tub up with water on Wednesday and let the AC get the water down to 76 F. Takes two less bags of ice to get down to 15 C on Saturday after the long run :)

Jeff
Reply

You forgot socks! Put some wool socks on when you soak.

rUnladylike
Reply

Great suggestion Jeff! My feet are always frozen :)

Chris
Reply

I sit in the tub while it fills with cold water with ice bag in but not opened. When tub is full I open up the bag (I use 20 lbs and stay until the ice melts about 10 min). I then stay in it while it drains. Then I shower. I also wear long sleeves and a towel over head and shoulders to stay warm

rUnladylike
Reply

Chris, I really like your approach! I may try that next time :)

Sarah
Reply

Just took my first ice bath using your tips… I’m an endurance cyclist, currently training for a 500+ mile ride. My masseuse recommended ice baths for me due to some old hamstring injuries. We’ll see what the long term effects are, but your tips were super helpful (would never have thought to wear shorts or a jacket). I was able to stay in a full 15 minutes, and I’m feeling great after my 75-mile ride!

Cain
Reply

I play a lot of soccer, and currently re-tweeked my ankle and injured my left thigh! So I have been playing music & having a cup of tea while I take my ice baths! I see a significant difference in the way I feel the next morning!
Guess it works for only some of us!

Fiona
Reply

I just did my first ice bucket. I tried an ice bath a few years ago but just couldn’t hack it, so I adapted it to suit me and have two buckets with ice to put my feet and lower legs in. I find this is where I tend to get most of my muscle soreness after a run. I watched TV for the 15 minutes and it went by in a blink of the eye. My legs and feet feel great now too!

jane
Reply

So I’m thinking of going in the coldwater spa that we use on the race horses where I work. Thought this blog might help my question is its a lot colder than 50 more like 35 only way to do it is to walk in then let it fill around you guess ill where a sweatshirt and bring a hot chocolate or is 35 too cold

rUnladylike
Reply

Hi Jane,
I am not a medical expert, but I believe 35 will be too cold for you to stay in for any period of time. You may be able to stick your foot or leg in for a few seconds, but I think you will find it to be colder than the benefit it could provide and could potentially be dangerous if you stayed in long. Please be careful, and best of luck to you! xo

Ryan
Reply

I play football, and training camp started today… This is the first time I’ve tried an ice bath, after a two-a-day practice I could barely walk, me being a wimp I had to get in and out of the bath three or four times. Finally I did a quick google search, and came across your tips. Soooo helpful, I’m writing this from the tub, and I’m sure my legs will thank you torrrow.

rUnladylike
Reply

Haha Ryan! Congrats on finally taking the plunge. I’m so glad these tips were helpful. Keep me posted on if you recover a little quicker from the cold soak. Good luck with your season this year!

meagan
Reply

I don’t really run, but could this help me loose weight??

rUnladylike
Reply

Meagan, I am not a weight loss expert but this should NOT be used for weight loss. This is a tactic that many runners use to help speed recovery only. Please consult your doctor regarding issues with weight and health.

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