There is a long-running debate about whether heating or icing is better for staving off the undesirable after-effects of intense exercise. On the one hand, heat opens blood vessels, allowing oxygen and nutrients to reach damaged areas and begin the healing process.
On the other hand, ice reduces inflammation that can be painful and impede healing, while also flushing lactic acid that leads to delayed onset muscle soreness. The general consensus seems to be that starting with ice to reduce inflammation and following with heat to treat lingering soreness is the way to go for athletes that push their bodies to the limit.
Even here there is some contention, and with little empirical evidence to go by it's hard to know what to believe. With a bit of trial and error, however, you can work out a system that delivers the best results for your body. The only caveat is that you have to use ice baths appropriately in order to avoid doing further damage.
If you're interested in ice baths to help with recovery after running but you're a little concerned about hopping into a tub full of freezing water, here are a few basics that can help you to brave the icy waters and gain the benefits inherent to ice baths.
Creating an Ice Bath
Whereas professional athletes have access to tubs specifically designed for ice baths, the average runner will have to make do with a standard home setup. There are a couple of ways to go about creating an ice bath, but the important thing to remember is that the temperature of the water should remain between 50 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit. If the temperature drops below 50 degrees it could bring on a fainting spell, something that most people would rather avoid when submerged in icy water.
The best way to set up your ice bath is by filling a bathtub with cold water and then adding ice and checking the temperature until it is in the 50 to 60-degree range. Then you can stand or sit in the water, depending on the areas you want to ice.
The other option is to sit in a tub of cold water and add ice from a bucket, slowly lowering the temperature so your body can adjust more gradually. The problem here is that it's harder to control the temperature because your body heat will warm the water. It would be all too easy to add too much ice and get into dangerous territory.
Protecting Your Body
As anyone who lives in a wintry climate knows, our bodies are averse to extreme cold. It is therefore necessary to take some precautions and exercise care when using ice baths without the supervision of a qualified healthcare professional.
In addition to paying close attention to water temperature, you should also protect extremities. When you immerse your body in cold water, blood will withdraw from the limbs and rush to the core to protect internal organs. You should probably keep hands and feet out of the water and check them to make sure they're not getting numb, signaling the onset of frostbite or hypothermia.
You should never stay in an ice bath for more than about 10-15 minutes. Any longer and you could be dealing with serious and even life-threatening health concerns. At the very least, you'll start to see detrimental effects where muscle recovery is concerned if you don't start to warm up after 15 minutes.
It's also a good idea to have someone with you when you take an ice bath, just in case the worst should happen. What if you're unable to get yourself out of the water? What if you faint? Having someone else to assist you in such situations could save your life.
Don't forget, everyone has a different threshold for dealing with cold. Before you go straight to a 50-degree ice bath, you might want to start closer to 60 degrees and gradually work your way toward a colder temperature to determine what you can endure.
When you emerge, wrap yourself in a blanket and sip a warm beverage to slowly bring up your body temperature. If you can't seem to stop shivering, get in a warm shower.
When to Use an Ice Bath
There are two sides to the ice bath coin: adaptation versus avoid muscle soreness. The inflammation brought on by strenuous activity can help the body to adapt and improve. However, achy muscles and fatigue can impede progress and performance.
If you want to get the most benefit from ice baths, it's probably best not to use them early in training, but to wait until after several training sessions. This way your body will adapt initially and then you can speed recovery later on when your body has been beaten up by rigorous physical exertion.