Should Runners Take Ice Baths? {Guest Post}

As promised, today I have another guest post to share with you all! Laura blogs over at This Runner’s Recipes and is talking today about ice baths. When Laura offered to share this information, I was excited to learn more about it as I start  marathon training again. 

Hi, everyone! My name is Laura, and I blog about running, racing, nutrition and healthy recipes, and hiking over at This Runner’s Recipes. Lisa kindly reached out to me about guest posting while she is away, so today I get to talk to all of you, her wonderful readers!

Should runners take ice baths?

We runners are willing to do quite a lot of strange things to improve at our sport. For example, as I write this, I’m drinking homemade green juice, pulp and all, after torturing my muscles foam rolling, all in the name of better nutrition and recovery for my ultimate goal of qualifying for Boston at the Portland Marathon (Ore.) in October. 

One of those strange things that runners do in the name of recovery and improving their running is ice baths. Only those of us determined enough to run for 13.1 or 26.2 miles would willing sit for 15 minutes in a tub full of ice! But do ice baths actually help us recovery, or are those freezingly cold 15 minutes all pain and no gain?

Before I delve into the pros and cons of ice baths for runners, I must confess that the closest I’ve come to taking an ice bath has been sitting down in the middle of a river after a long hike on a hot day in the Cascades. You would think, with my huge goal of a BQ, that I would be utilizing every single means of recovery possible. However, like with all things running, I thoroughly research recovery to make sure I’m doing it right. One common theme has emerged from all the articles and research I’ve read: what if we’re doing too much when it comes to recovery?

That’s right. What if ice baths are actually hindering our progress rather than improving our recovery? What if, instead doing every single thing we can to speed recovery right after a run, we just treat our bodies well and let them repair as they need?

By the time we complete long or hard run, our muscles have endured microtrauma from the exercise. The tiny little tears in our muscles cause inflammation and then our body responds to the inflammation by repairing the muscles. We get fitter and faster when those tears repair and our muscles become stronger. It is in recovery then that we reap the benefits of our 20 mile long run or mile repeats.

While excess or chronic inflammation is not desirable and even detrimental, some inflammation is good. It’s a natural and vital part of the stress, recovery, and adaptation process of training. While you want to manage the inflammation with a healthy diet and balanced stress, you also don’t want to suppress all of the inflammation too early so that your body doesn’t receive the right signals to begin recovery.

That’s where the debate on ice baths begins. Are ice baths actually hindering our recovery and thus preventing us from reaping the maximum benefits of training?

More and more studies are finding and coaches are arguing that the sole benefit of ice baths is that they make you feel better after a hard effort. Manipulating the amount of inflammation in your muscles so shortly after a workout, however, may prove detrimental to your training, or at the least not offer any performance benefits. So, a post-race ice bath won’t be of any harm and can help you feel better, but a post-long run ice bath may keep you from reaping the full benefits of those hard 20 miles you just logged. 

A recent article in Outside Online points to research that indicates that an ice bath immediately after a workout suppresses inflammation, delays repair, and prolongs the overall recovery process. Essentially, the ice bath may offer immediate pain relief to tired legs, but you could still feel sore days later and even more fatigued throughout your training cycle as your muscles never fully repair. 

On the other side of the debate, some scientists still fall in favor of ice baths, or at least are unable to find evidence against them. A 2014 study on endurance cyclists from the Australian Institute of Sport concluded that cold water immersion, including ice baths, could not be said to be detrimental to endurance training. However, the study was also unable to determine any clear benefits from ice baths. 

Personally, I think there are two things to consider when it comes to asking should runners take ice baths or not. First, there’s bio-individuality. Different athletes respond to stimuli differently; that is why some runners thrive on 70+ mile weeks and others get injured every time their weekly mileage creeps above 50. 

Likewise, some runners may benefit from ice baths, while for others it may be detrimental or non-effective. If you’ve been taking ice baths and are seeing your performance halt for reasons unclear, maybe try skipping the ice bath for a couple weeks. Conversely, if you are struggling to recover from your long runs, perhaps try a short ice bath or at least a colder shower. Or, as this article from coach Greg McMillan suggests, you can strategically use ice baths throughout different periods of your training to optimize both recovery and relief from soreness.  

Second, the problem may not be with ice baths themselves, but with the duration and frequency. Many runners, especially newer runners, have the tendency to go all-or-nothing during training and just do too much. Too many miles, too many hard workouts, too many ice baths, compression socks, and foam rolling. While these are all good in moderation, you can easily get injured or slow your progress by running too much and doing too much active recovery. 

An alternative to ice baths could be cold showers after a workout. The relatively warmer temperature won’t reduce soreness as much, but there’s less risk of hindering recovery. Colder showers will improve circulation, strengthen your immunity (which training can lower), and increase your energy. 

Personally, I would prefer to push through soreness during training rather than taking any chance of hindering my progress. But, as an always cold person, this is also influenced by personal preference. 

So, runners, where do you fall in this debate? Do you swear by ice baths or avoid them? 

Thanks for sharing that helpful information, Laura! 

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26 responses on Should Runners Take Ice Baths? {Guest Post}

    1. Same here! I used to take ice baths but now I’d rather just recover on my own…minus the ice:)

  1. I’ve never taken an ice bath; I do, however, really enjoy a good Epsom salt bath after a long run! I think I’m too much of a wimp for ice baths – ha! I have noticed some reports lately that seem to “debunk” the myth of the ice bath; I have to admit that I was kind of encouraged by this. Thanks so much for sharing this info, Laura and Lisa!
    Tara @ Running ‘N’ Reading recently posted…Everybody Rise by Stephanie CliffordMy Profile

    1. I also enjoy an epsom salt bath! I used to take ice baths, but not anymore. After reading about it I figure its not worth the torture:)

  2. Interesting! I have never taken an ice bath.I do ice areas after a run if I hurt, and I always feel like it helps, but never submerged my legs. I will say I was at the ocean once after a run and the cool water felt amazing but I typically crave a very hot shower after a hard work out :)
    Karen recently posted…Liebster TimeMy Profile

    1. I would rather take a warm bath or hot shower too! I do think going in a cool ocean would feel good after a hot run though.

  3. This is a great post! Being the nerd that I am, I especially like that it was well-researched, especially with the PubMed article :). I’ve taken a few exercise science/kinesiology classes from a well-known high school running coach, who also happened to be a professor at the community college I attended out of high school. I attended a conference last year that he spoke at that was actually hosted by the grad school I go to now. One of his powerpoints was on this topic and like Laura, he mentioned that there may be some strategy when it comes to planning ice baths around training, mainly that when big races are close, and when a runner is in the tapering period, the idea is not to gain fitness, but rather maintain it, and this is where ice baths can be valuable in minimizing any residual soreness before the big day. I’m definitely not too sad about the idea that ice baths may not be the best idea in the peak of training haha. I’ve never liked them :)
    Hailey recently posted…School, training, and ice creamMy Profile

  4. I guess I’m in the minority here on team ice bath! I take them only after more than 13miles, especially when it’s super hot, as it has been this summer. They don’t have to be super icy. Just a tray or 2 of ice in a cold bath. I find it soothing. Maybe it’s more mental for me, I don’t know. I also enjoy running outside when it’s zero so ice doesn’t scare me.
    Marcia recently posted…Thinking Out Loud: TruthsMy Profile

    1. If it works for you, that’s great! I don’t know if they really helped me or not, but now that I have read some controversial stuff I figure its not worth torturing myself:)

  5. This is really great information – thanks! Personally, I’ve taken an ice bath before and found that it really helped my recovery after a long run. HOWEVER, because it is good to let your body repair itself on its own too, I only take an ice bath once in each marathon training cycle if I’m feeling especially sore after a super long run.
    Charissa recently posted…Steamtown Marathon Training Week 4 (8/3 – 8/9)My Profile

    1. That is a great plan- and exactly what the research shows to be helpful! Now that I have given up on ice baths I just can’t bring myself to take them anymore…

    1. I agree, I feel like if I was terrible sore or something was bothering me I would take one, otherwise why torture myself?

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