By Peter Holmes on 01/12/09 at 9:51 pm
An extreme measure or a great way to recover? Ice bathing has long been debated within sports circles as to the benefits of jumping in a tub of cold water following an intensive workout or race, and what ever your initial opinions, you just need to see the post-race routines of many of the world’s top elites to understand how seriously their physiologists take the recovery process.
The science behind ice bathing stems from the trauma the muscles experience when pushed to their limits. Tiny tears appear in the fibres, called microtrauma, which can cause pain and stiffness once the muscles stop working and start to return to their normal state. Everyone at some point has woken up the day after a race and found it hard to get out of bed – this is the effect of the delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS).
Ice bathing is thought to counteract DOMS through a number of ways:
- reducing swelling caused by muscle tissue being broken down
- constricting blood vessels and flushing out waste products from the muscles, such as lactic acid
- slowing down the physiological processes in the muscles
When the muscles start to warm back up the increased blood flow enhances circulation through the affected parts of the body, and helps to heal the muscles. Some athletes will alternate between warm and cold water to try and get the same effect; this is called contrast water therapy.
Want to try?
Many high performance centres have their own bath tubs and ice machines, but if you’re not fortunate enough to live near a facility, the effect can be easily replicated at home.
Finish your training with a decent warm down; do not go from high intensity exercise straight into an ice bath!
1. Fill the tub with cold tap water so that if you sit in the water will come up around your waist.
2. Add ice cubes from the freezer. Start with a few ice cubes for your first bath. As with most things, the cold becomes easier to handle with time and you can use more as you get used to taking them.
3. Immerse yourself. It is always best to wear running shorts, and possibly socks if you have sensitive toes.
4. Try and stay in for 10-12 minutes, this is plenty of time for the cold water to take its effect on the muscles. Distract yourself from the sensation with music or reading; this is also a great time to refuel the body with food and drink.
5. Once the time is up be careful when getting out. Ensure you have a towel ready by the side of the bath and watch your footing as stiff legs and wet surfaces can be a dangerous combination.
6. Once dry put on lots of layers to warm up, and move slowly to allow the muscles time to get back up to a good operating temperature. You may choose to take a warm shower after your ice bath.
Pictures courtesy of Joel Filliol