As a coach, one of the most common questions posed to me by athletes, whether they are tri-rookies or emerging elites, is "what can I do to get faster?" Most tend to be looking for the key workout that will help push them to new heights. Others want to know what new piece of equipment will help them shave a gram off their bike set-up or make them a fraction more aerodynamic.
One of the biggest lessons I have learned in the 30 years I have been exposed to endurance sports is that consistency and commitment to the small stuff are paramount to success. And these two items are not mutually exclusive. It is generally the attention to this small stuff, such as functional strength, nutrition and recovery that helps keep athletes from sustaining injury and thus allows them to be consistent in their training.
Most athletes have heeded the recommendation to incorporate strength and flexibility training into their regimen and some actually include these items as entries in their training logs. And, while I know we all break from time to time, I can't think of a more disciplined group when it comes to nutrition.
However, if there is one common shortcoming I would single out in the Type A-leaning triathlon population, it's the lack of focus on recovery. While in part this means breaking ourselves from the "more is better" mentality, it also means doing the little things that help our bodies bounce back for the next training session.
A number of people have been asking about ice baths lately, possibly due to the visibility successful marathoners such as Paula Radcliffe and Meb Keflezighi have brought to the practice. The general theory behind this cold therapy is that the exposure to cold helps to combat the microtrauma (small tears) in muscle fibers and resultant soreness caused by intense or repetitive exercise.
The ice bath is thought to constrict blood vessels, flush waste products and reduce swelling and tissue breakdown. Subsequently, as the tissue warms and the increased blood flow speeds circulation, the healing process is jump-started. The advantage of an ice bath submersion is that a large area of intertwined musculature can be treated, rather than limiting the cold therapy to a concentrated area with a localized ice pack.
So, should ice baths be one of these routine activities to help you gain an advantage on your competition? It depends on whom you ask. The research to date is inconclusive, and in asking elite coaches, you are likely to receive a varying degree of significance placed on the practice. However, most agree that while it may not be guaranteed to help, it generally can't hurt. My personal recommendation is to treat this much like any other part of your training program: experiment with ice baths at a period in your season when you are not approaching a key race and see how your body responds.