If you’re into fitness, you shouldn’t be surprised to see runners—and athletes across all disciplines—jumping into an ice bath after a hard workout.
Also known as cryotherapy or cold water immersion, this “super cold” practice is touted to help reduce muscle pain and soreness.
In this article, I’ll touch on some of the main benefits ice baths offer and how to make the most out of polar practice.
What is An Ice Bath
An ice bath is exactly what it sounds like: an immersion in super cold water. Unlike relaxing baths that you might take for stress and relaxation purposes, ice baths are swift, therapeutic immersions in water filled with ice cubes.
Ice baths are used by athletes from various sports as part of a post-exercise recovery route but can be helpful any time of the day. More on this later.
What Do Ice Baths Do
As long as you’re healthy and don’t have any chronic conditions, ice baths may have a lot to offer.
It cannot only help you relax and feel better but can also help you feel better, enhance your mood and even improve your performance.
Let’s explore some of the benefits of ice baths for runners.
Reduce Core Body Temperature
I hate to state the obvious, but an ice bath can bring your temperature down like nothing else.
This is especially the case if you just worked yourself into a sweat.
Ice baths are a common therapeutic tool for marathon runners and other athletes experiencing heat injuries. The ice can be lifesaving as it has been used to treat serious conditions such as heat stroke.
But be careful. Taking the cold plunge for too long can reduce your core body temperature too much, which is dangerous.
Reduce The Impact of Heat & Humidity
Whether you just finished a long and hard run or are in the middle of summer, cooling off fast can be crucial in many situations.
An ice bath can cool you off quickly—and much more effectively than other methods.
A cold plunge before a long race in heat or humidity can reduce your core body temperature to enhance performance.
Don’t take my word for it.
A review of 19 studies has reported that jumping in cold water cooled off overheated subjects twice as fast as otherwise. But this is only possible if much of the skin is immersed.
Soothe Sore Muscles
After a hard run, plugging into cold water can rely in sore and burning muscles. The cold constricts your blood vessels which slows circulation and soothes some of that soreness and swelling in your muscles post-exercise.
Again, don’t take me for word for it. Some research has shown that cold water immersion limits muscle soreness post-exercise.
According to a study that looked into volleyball, players reported that cold baths benefit muscle recovery in those who practiced it post-workout over 16 days
That’s not the whole story.
Another study found that immersion in cold water can lower inflammation and muscle soreness after intense exercise. The researchers had 15 subjects plunge into cold water at 50 degrees F (10 degrees C) for 15 minutes after their workout. The control group was kept at room temperature.
In the end, the researchers found that the cold water was effective at suppressing the inflammatory markers neopterin two hours following an intensive bout of exercise. That’s a good thing if you ask me.
Simply spending 15 minutes in cold water can help reduce muscle soreness following a workout rather than just resting at room temperature.
However, remember that you’re only using the cold to soothe post-workout aches and not actual pain.
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Inflammation is our body’s reaction to injury and is characterized by redness, pain, and swelling. Again, the cold has been shown to help with this.
The theory is cold water constrict your blood vessel by decreasing the local temperature after exercise, which can help reduce swelling and inflammatory response. This, in turn, helps you recover faster.
It almost functions like a drug-free anesthetic.
Runners with inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis, will find great relief in cold water immersion as it helps reduce discomfort and swelling from flare-ups post-run.
Just keep in mind that some people get better results with heat, so it’s a matter of finding out what feels best for your body at the end of the day.
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Improve your Focus
Another benefit of cold water immersion is that it snaps your brain into focus.
Although plunging into cold water may seem like the last thing to do, studies have found some surprising benefits for brain power and mental health.
Like breath work, meditation, and mindfulness, cold water immersion is another efficient practice for your cortisol levels, stress, and mental state.
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Trains Your Vagus Nerve
Cold water immersion can also benefit your nervous system.
Ice baths may help you train your vague nerve, which is linked with the parasympathetic nervous system and training.
The vague nerve is a long nerve that extends from the brain to the stomach and helps us deal with stressful situations.
Improved Vagus nerve function improves mental function, cognition, and digestion, reducing anxiety and so much more.
Again, don’t take my word for it.
Research has reported that cold stimulation activates the Vagus nerve, especially in the neck region. Therefore, reducing heart rate and likely soothing stress.
A review of different research papers has reported that cold showers have an antidepressant effect. Another review of hydrotherapy treatments found that cold exposure can improve the capacity and function of the certain nervous system (CNS). A functional CNS can help you feel better and sleep better.
Although more research needs to be conducted to get the full picture of the link between ice baths and mental conditions, jumping into cold water every now and then might help your mood.
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The Risks of Ice Baths
Although cold water immersion are beneficial, just like anything else, there are some side effects.
For starters, jumping into icy water feels very cold—especially the first few times you do this.
In addition to this superficial “discomfort,” ice baths’ main downside applies to those with high blood pressure or any preexisting disease.
The immersion in ice constricts blood vessels and slows down circulation in your body.
This can be unsafe if you have circulation problems which can put you at risk for cardiac arrest or stroke.
You may also risk hypothermia, especially if submerged in icy water.
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Who shouldn’t try ice baths?
Staying in an ice bath for too long can also cause hypothermia, which occurs when your body temperature drops too low.
That’s why it’s important to use a timer and keep your ice baths brief. And remember to pay attention to your body. You should get out of an ice bath immediately if you start shivering uncontrollably or notice skin color changes.
Though cold water plunges are likely a risk for everyone, some people may be especially vulnerable. That’s why it’s key to ensure it’s safe for you before jumping into cold water.
Avoid ice bathing if you have:
- Type 1 or 2 diabetes
- A cardiovascular condition or high blood pressure
- Peripheral neuropathy.
- Poor circulation
- An open wound
- Venous stasis.
- Cold agglutinin disease.
- Conditions that increase your cold sensitivity
- Another preexisting condition limits your body’s ability to regulate body temperature or blood pressure.
Not sure if ice baths are a good idea? Get the green light from your doctor first.
The Cold Isn’t A Fix For Serious Injuries
Although cold water immersion can help soothes your aches and pains, it’s not the right option if you’re suffering from something more serious, like a fracture, ligament tear, or a chronic overuse injury.
That’s why you need to ensure you’re not dealing with an underlying issue.
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Tips For Taking An Ice Bath
Ready to take the plunge? Then there are a few things to make sure you make the most out of it.
How do you make an ice bath?
You can throw together an ice bath by failing your bathtub halfway with cold water and then tossing in a few large bags of commercial ice.
You can also use a smaller container to zone in on a specific part of your body, such as your calf.
The temperature of the ice should usually be roughly 50 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit. Likewise, the water shouldn’t be colder than 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Timing is everything
Spending a long time submerged in cold water can have negative consequences. So, limit your cold exposure to no more than 10 minutes. Start with 5 minutes and slowly work your way up.
It may not seem that cold, but you’ll feel the chill.
Also, use a bath thermometer to ensure you’re doing it right.
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To make the most out of the cold bath, immerse your entire body in the cold water. This should have the most positive impact on blood vessel contraction.
If this is your first few times, make sure to first expose your feet and lower legs. Then, as you get used to the cold, move toward your chest and upper body.
The sooner you jump into the cold water following a hard run or workout, the better the effect.
This helps you target your muscles while they’re still in the healing process. Otherwise, some inflammatory and recovery processes may have already run their course if you wait an hour or longer.
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How Long To Ice Bath
If this is your first time, keep it quick. I’d recommend starting with no more than five minutes, then max out at 10.
If this is your first time trying ice therapy, most experts recommend starting much warmer—maybe at around 58 to 62 Degrees. Just keep in mind that it’s cold for a bath.
Research also tells us that ice baths have little to nothing extra to offer after a few minutes. Furthermore, research has suggested that after around three minutes, extra benefits taper off.
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Although more research is needed to look into the effects of cold baths on performance, recovery, and overall health, the current scientific consensus is favorable.