The Epsom salt versus ice bath debate is one that continues to rage within running communities and online forums. There seem to be valid points on both sides, although often backed up with little scientific evidence, or in some cases, even anecdotal evidence.
As a runner interested in how best to prepare for an upcoming race, you naturally want the skinny on which type of bath is best suited to minimizing damage, healing your body, flushing toxins, and helping you to prepare for a stellar performance. With all the information out there, it can be difficult to decide if an Epsom salt bath or an ice bath is better.
How can you choose? Let's break down some of the arguments for and against each type of bath to see if we can suss out which one is more likely to provide the performance-enhancing benefits you crave.
Epsom Salt Bath Benefits
Many people, including non-runners, use Epsom salt in a bath to increase relaxation. The magnesium sulfate in this product separates into magnesium and sulfate in water, and these substances can be absorbed through the skin.
The supposed benefits of such treatment include the alleviation of common running complaints like muscle aches and pains, general soreness, swelling, bruising, and more. Epsom salt is also indicated for skin conditions like psoriasis, and it has been known to ease the pain of sunburn. Some people also claim Epsom salt baths help to relieve headaches and stress.
All of this sounds pretty good if you're a runner preparing for a race the next day. However, you should know that clinical evidence to support most of these claims is lacking. Although many runners swear by the healing properties of Epsom salt baths, you might just have to try them for yourself and see how you feel about it personally. One thing is true with Epsom salt baths, though - they include heated water, which is known to help relax tight muscles.
Epsom Salt Bath Drawbacks
It has been suggested that Epsom salt can draw out toxins, but the other side of this coin is that it could leave you feeling dehydrated. Like the many claims of benefits related to Epsom salt baths, there is really no empirical evidence to support the claim that this product causes dehydration.
Ice Bath Benefits
A bathtub full of ice water might not sound particularly relaxing, and it's not. However, it can be beneficial for runners in a number of ways, namely by combating inflammation and speeding recovery for injured muscles.
Again, clinical evidence is somewhat lacking for these claims, although anecdotal evidence is in strong supply. For decades, coaches and athletes have sworn by ice baths for rapid recovery, but this doesn't necessarily mean they're the right choice the night before a race - they might be better after the fact.
Ice Bath Drawbacks
You could be flirting with danger if you stay in an ice bath too long or the temperature is too cold. This is not mere conjecture, either. Exposure to extreme cold can have negative consequences, mainly hypothermia. Frostbite is pretty unlikely, since it requires freezing temperatures, which would put you in a block of ice rather than water.
It's important to know some basics if you want to avoid the downside of ice baths. Some say a bath between 50 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal, while others say a range of 54-60 is best. What you should probably do is start on the higher end until you understand how you'll react to the cold. In addition, you shouldn't stay in for more than a few minutes, and you should never exceed 10 minutes.
In truth, both Epsom salt and ice baths could provide runners with some benefits, although it seems like they might work better after a race than before. If you're interested in taking advantage of these hot and cold cure-alls, your best bet is to do some trial and error on your own.
What works for other runners might not work for you, and you need to know how these baths will make you feel so you can get the greatest possible benefit. Then you can decide which is most likely to deliver peak performance when used the night before a big race.
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