Plunging into an ice bath is the go-to post-workout routine for many long-distance runners. But aside from anecdotal evidence, there's been a minimal amount of research on the benefits—or not—of icing. Until now.
Recent studies have been able to shed more light on this popular pastime, causing many athletes to consider whether icing helps or hurts them. Use these three rules to make sure you're reaping the benefits.
1. Know The Science
Icing has been found to affect performance and post-workout recovery in a number of studies.
Performance: In this study, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, Division I collegiate soccer players were put through a workout of 20-meter sprints and vertical jumps. Afterward, half the group took a 15-minute, 54-degree ice bath and half did not. After 24 and 48 hours, there were no significant differences between the two groups' workout performance.
Post-workout recovery: A 2013 study found that topical icing could actually hinder muscle recovery. Participants used cold packs in 15-minute intervals at 0, 3, 24, 48 and 72 hours after performing six sets of elbow extension at 85 percent max load; a control group did not use any cooling methods. The researchers found that muscle fatigue and soreness was greater for those who used cold packs 72 hours after the exercise than the control group.
Despite the studies, many athletes believe there are post-workout benefits to icing such as reduced inflammation, nerve impulses, pain and soreness. Because much of the research is split between benefits and drawbacks, it's best to see what works for you.
2. Use Both Acute and Total Body Icing
You don't need to sit in a bathtub full of ice to reap the benefits of this recovery method. There are two kinds of icing, ice baths and acute icing. Consider the difference to decide which is best and when:
Ice bath: Take an ice bath up to your waist following a particularly long and fast or hard running workout because this method targets systematic inflammation, says Matt Hart, running coach for Coaching Endurance. The bath should be between 50 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit, and you should only sit in it for 10 to 15 minutes to avoid negatively affecting your muscles.
Acute icing: This is best used for injuries or particularly sore areas of the body. Apply ice on the area for 20 minutes every 3 to 4 hours as soreness or pain continues. In this case you can use an ice pack, gel pack or bag of frozen corn or peas. Always put the cold pack in a towel or napkin to reduce topical pain from the cold.
3. Do Your Own Trial and Error
See how icing fits within your own post-workout routine. If you're sore in a particular part of the body, or are recovering from a specific injury, try acute icing. If you're training for a long-distance race like a marathon or ultramarathon, an ice bath may be most beneficial. Monitor how your body feels the days after icing to decide whether it's effective for you.half-marathon racing tips and advice.