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The Miraculous Healing Powers of the Ice Bath

The Miraculous Healing Powers of the Ice Bath

by macdaddy on June 30, 2008 · 28 comments

I ran fourteen miles on Saturday.

Our marathon training group met at Portland’s Duniway Park, just below OHSU and the Veteran’s Hospital. We ran up and over the hill, down into Burlingame, across the freeway, and into Tryon Creek State Park. Though we didn’t have any steep climbs, the course was filled with rolling hills.

After seven miles, four of us turned around while the rest of the group logged an eighth mile. Without our pace leader, we went a little quicker than we should have. By the end of the run, my body ached. My IT band was sore. My calves were sore. My toes were sore.

I drove home, hobbled across the lawn, hobbled up the steps, and hobbled into the bathroom. I popped four ibuprofen (as per doctor’s recommendation) and took an ice bath. When I hopped out fifteen minutes later, my legs had no soreness at all. They’ve been (mostly) pain-free ever since. (They’re tight, and that’s for certain, but there’s very little pain.)

The ice bath is a beautiful thing. Here’s how I do it:

  1. I begin drawing a cold bath. I don’t turn on the hot water at all. I simply fill the tube with cold water from the tap.
  2. While the tub fills, I put on a sweatshirt. Some of my running buddies wear mittens and a hat, but this seems like overkill. Yes, the sweatshirt is going to get wet.
  3. While the tub is still filling, I get in and sit down. It’s cold. I squeal like a baby. I stretch my legs out in front of me and sit upright.
  4. With my wife’s help, I add a 20-pound bag of ice. Many people just use their ice cube trays. In reality, you don’t need to add ice at all.
  5. I sit in the water for 10-20 minutes. Actually, for the past two weeks, I’ve been using twelve minutes as the Magic Time. (This was recommended by the physical therapist who makes announcements before the training runs.)
  6. When the ice bath is finished, I peel off the sweatshirt and take a brief hot shower — just enough to soap off the stink from running.
  7. After a quick bite to eat, I do my post-run stretching. (Note: A couple of commenters have pointed out that this may not be a good idea. It may be better to stretch before the ice bath. Do what you feel is best.)

Though the ice bath is uncomfortable at first, my body adjusts after a couple of minutes. (Well, it becomes numb more than anything.)

Though the scientific research indicates ice baths are of dubious benefit to a runner, psychologically they are amazing. And for me, there seems to be a real physical difference. The idea behind them is that the cold engulfs the legs, restricting the blood flow and reducing swelling. This, in turn, reduces pain.

For myself, and for many other runners, this seems to be the case. I plan to continue using them as a valuable part of my marathon training.

Photo by Allspice1.

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Miguel Wickert June 30, 2008 at 6:52 am

hey hey, way to go! 14 miles, impressive stuff my friend. Keep up the great work! The most I’ve ever ran was 10 miles about 6 1/2 years ago.

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2 Maria - Never the Same River Twice June 30, 2008 at 6:59 am

I’m glad you wrote this post, as I was meaning to email you about your ice bath process. I don’t know if I could stand 20 lbs of ice in the bath (yikes!!!), but I can definitely see using cold baths after a hard workout.

I’ve tried cold/hot alternating showers in the past, but it’s too easy to escape the cold water part of the shower. Sitting in a bath tub guarantees that you’re getting the exposure you need.

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3 WeightLadder June 30, 2008 at 8:19 am

The worst pain I have ever known…

After a serious ankle sprain in college the trainer had my ankle in and out of an cooler filled with water and ice.

20 minutes in (my ears hurt just thinking about it)… 20 minutes out… for the better part of a 4 hour practice.

I have never looked at ice water the same way again.

Just flat out no way I could do this.

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4 Red June 30, 2008 at 9:13 am

I’ll have to figure out where that pool is.

Chillin’ with polar bears sounds like a good time.

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5 Anonymous June 30, 2008 at 11:27 am

Why do you use 20 lbs of ice? It kind of seems like a waste, especially if you “don’t need it.”

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6 J.D. June 30, 2008 at 12:30 pm

Twenty pounds of ice is what the store sells for a buck ninety-nine. It’s cheap and convenient. (Or maybe it’s a ten pound bag. Now you have me doubting myself.)

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7 drifting June 30, 2008 at 12:36 pm

I’m kind of freaked out by the idea of stretching after an ice bath – doesn’t the restricted blood flow also tighten up the muscles, making stretching counter-productive or even a bit dangerous?

Time to hit the Google – I haven’t done the research. I did, however, have a strained hamstring tear right after an ice bath years ago, but I’m willing to admit there may not have been any real correlation.

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8 macdaddy June 30, 2008 at 12:40 pm

I agree with drifting. My instincts tell me to stretch before you’re frozen.

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9 J.D. June 30, 2008 at 12:47 pm

Hm. You’re probably right. I’ll make a correction in the post.

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10 Andrew is getting fit June 30, 2008 at 1:53 pm

The idea of an ice bath just freaks me out.

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11 Brigid June 30, 2008 at 3:33 pm

Ice baths are great once you are out of them. They do work well though. I generally don’t need a sweatshirt, but being in Florida – I’m rarely cold. My BF gives me the “I can’t believe you do this to yourself voluntarily” look. I’m in for no more than 15 minutes (usually the ice melts before then). I just kick back and drink coffee.

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12 Bobby June 30, 2008 at 5:50 pm

So, in the picture which one is you?

=)

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13 Steve June 30, 2008 at 5:58 pm

I LOVE my ice baths and am looking forward to my long Sunday summer runs with 10 minutes in the tub to “cool down”….

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14 monica June 30, 2008 at 11:28 pm

I did something similar in an ice cold river in the Lake District after a 15 mile hike in the mountains (with a pack). It burned. And I was still sore the next day. But I may just be a wuss.

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15 suzanne July 1, 2008 at 8:23 am

I’ve had problems lately with my right calve and last night i tried just the totally cold water and sitting in it and it really worked wonders. Will definitely do this again.

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16 Leah July 1, 2008 at 3:02 pm

I just tried an ice bath for the first time the other day. I’ve got some killer shin splints from playing ultimate, and I quipped to a teammate that I didn’t have enough ice packs for my whole body. She recommended the ice bath.

I actually really liked it. I just ran the tap with totally cold water. It took me a little while to get in (and definitely lots of squealing). It was so nice afterward.

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17 Emily July 1, 2008 at 4:00 pm

Ice baths have always worked like a charm for me. The way I think of it- if you just ran 14 miles, the 12-minute ice bath is the equivalent to running one extra mile. If we’re tough enough for 14, we’re tough enough for 14 + bath. I drink coffee in the tub.

Knock on wood- I’ve never had a running injury and I ALWAYS take an ice bath (mostly cold water + a few ice trays).

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18 Mary July 10, 2008 at 8:55 am

Not sure if you’ll be able to read this thread if you don’t have a login:

Ice/Ibuprofin

I hadn’t really heard about the risks of using ibuprofin while dehydrated prior to this and I have to say that this information has kept me from downing quite a few that I normally would have taken without thinking twice.

(RA is free to join if you need to read the thread. Not advertising here!)

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19 Ben September 15, 2008 at 1:13 pm

There is no doubt that the ice bath is great. As a first time marathoner I had the joy of experiencing this for the first time this weekend after a 22 mile run. I started by drawing a 3″ deep luke warm bath and sitting in it. I open the drain and turn on the tap to add cold water only, and mixing the cold water into the warm with my hands and legs. This keeps the cold shock from happening. After a few minutes I close the drain and finish filling it. Soaked for 10 minutes. Every run I’ve had over 15 miles has resulted in excruciating pain for 2-3 days afterward. This time my legs barely hurt and I ran 22 miles just 2 days ago.

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20 Cherri February 7, 2009 at 4:06 pm

Wow – 20lbs for $1.99 – I’d add that much at that price, if I could stand it, but I just did this for the first time ever and it cost me $6 for to 7 lbs bags. I ended up only using one of them and decided to save the other 7lbs for next time.

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21 Charnell Price February 26, 2009 at 12:10 pm

Hey, Thanks for the article. I’m a sprinter and i just started doing ice baths and i can say from the after effects, my legs feel brand new after an ice bath. Another tip my coach tells me to do is after my muscles get back to temperature, you should get someone to rub out your legs. and drink a lot of water. Yeah they’re great though!

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22 Gman March 19, 2009 at 7:40 am

I’ve been running for years but never really had time to compete. I’m now training for a 5k/10k races at an intermediate level. I do ice baths daily regardless of hard runs or not. 10 minutes in bathtub up to my waist wearing a sweatshirt (I’m in NYC and it’s still winter here!) and I’m good to go the next day, no real pain or soreness. I saw this in that UFC show on Spike a while back. It really works. I keep my toes out the water so it doesn’t hurt that much…then all goes numb…and I mean all…sigh.

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23 Jblain May 9, 2009 at 8:38 am

i just did the keswick to barrow (44 miles) and i am in agony. thanks for the advice on ice-baths

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24 Aaron monzon August 20, 2011 at 8:56 pm

I’m a football player and have had two a days for a week I took an ice bath and it works so great. I recommend I to any athlete who is super sore after practicing or running. I go bout 15 minutes with two bags of ice… Gallon zipplocs

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25 Benedict October 7, 2011 at 12:21 am

I did a 5km jog yesterday after almost two months of being inactive. Afterwards my ankle were sore and calf were stiff, so i took 2 20L buckets half filled with ice and water. i then immersed my feet, 15 minutes later they were numb took a quick shower and i was refreshed as ever!

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26 Tim July 18, 2012 at 5:52 pm

I took my first ice bath today and my wife called me crazy. It wasn’t as bad as you’d think. I cooled off slowly with the shower and I was surprised at how quickly my body adapted. My skin turned red but I’m told this is normal. I’m going to try with more ice on Saturday after my run to see if it works better being a little cooler but I feel good after my bath. I also feel like I could sleep like a baby and I’m at work!
Tim recently posted..True Dat

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